Yes, DNA can be faked!

Published: Tuesday | December 17, 2013 Comments 0

Vivian Gray Jr, Guest Columnist

Recently, there has been a series of discussions in the media concerning the need for DNA legislation and a DNA database. These discussions were sparked by two publications in The Sunday Gleaner of December 8, 2013, one of which is an opinion piece written by former deputy commissioner of police in charge of crime, Mark Shields.

DNA is a nucleic acid which contains the genetic instructions used in the development and function of all life. The instructions and information contained in the genes are unique to the particular life form from which they originate.

Because of this, DNA has become one of the most powerful forensic tools because once any material containing DNA is available, it is virtually certain that the person from which the DNA material originated will be identified. In the case of crimes, that individual can be easily identified and called upon to provide answers in relation to the crime.

The margin of error in the use of DNA evidence is extremely low, since the process excludes the rest of our planet's population. The odds of an incorrect match are in the billions. Other forms of evidence, like blood-spatter analysis and ballistics, relies on expert judgement and is considered to have a more limited connection with established science.

DNA surpasses those methods and is considered to be more reliable than even eyewitness evidence, which can suffer from a relatively higher error rate. Given its accuracy and low margin of error, it only makes sense that Jamaica, with its low clear-up rate for murder, should make every effort to speedily make greater use of this technology as part of the process of resolving criminal cases.

So, the benefits of DNA as a forensic tool and its ability to aid in the speedy resolution of criminal cases are well known. What is not well known, however, is that DNA can be faked!

On August 17, 2009, The New York Times published a story of how scientists in Israel demonstrated the ability to fabricate DNA evidence, in two ways:

1. With the first method of fabrication, the researchers created saliva and blood samples containing DNA from another person other than the original donor. The researchers took blood from a woman and centrifuged it to remove the white cells, which contain DNA. They then added DNA to the remaining red blood cells, which had been amplified from a man's hair follicle.

2. They also demonstrated the ability to manufacture a sample of DNA with only a DNA profile from a database - without obtaining any physical samples from that person. They did this by cloning tiny DNA snippets from the most common variants at each spot and creating a repository of snippets. To create the desired DNA sample, they simply mixed the proper snippets together. They claim that a repository of just 425 different DNA snippets would be enough to cover every possible profile.

The first method of fabrication requires a degree of sophistication, specialised equipment and skills, which the average criminal is not likely to have and so Jamaica ought to have little fear in this regard. However, the second method - using markers from a database to create a profile - should give us some pause.

Success with pulling off a fake via this method may require nothing more than a financially able corrupter and a corruptee who may or may not be willing, or who may be under some form of undue influence or threat to his or her person, property or family.

We already know that eyewitnesses are prime targets and their fear of being marked for death prevents them from openly participating, or participating at all, in the criminal justice process. The result is that our criminal justice process is hijacked.

If DNA evidence becomes the new star witness, criminals will shift their focus from targeting eyewitnesses to targeting forensic officers and persons with access to the DNA database to carry out the manufacturing of fake DNA. The focus of action would not be with a view to eliminating forensic experts, but to corrupting them so that they can assist with manufacturing the fake DNA.

So, while I support the call by Mr Shields for DNA legislation and a DNA database, I caution policymakers to ensure that the National Forensic Lab and other labs that will be utilised under such a scheme follow a standard which will be able to detect if DNA is fake.

For example, the Israeli researchers suggested a way of spotting DNA which has been fabricated. They were of the view that a lab would have to look for a lack of methylation. Methyl groups are found naturally in genetic code, but they are not found in the 'fake' DNA. Given the concerns already voiced in Jamaica, to assure confidence, our legislation and regulations would have to set out minimum standard practice and labs would have to look for a lack of methylation and make it a standard practice.

Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and viviangrayjr@yahoo.com.

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