Wired 12.16.2020 Online 08:00 |Science|”Cops Are Getting a New Tool For Family-Tree Sleuthing” “Verogen’s push into public crime labs with genetic genealogy may help solve more cases, but it raises concerns about DNA data collection.” By Megan Molteni
“Growing genetic databases” are proving helpful in biopharma, medicine and the law-“perhaps…the biggest benefactors of this biometric boom.” We have seen how DNA analysis has helped to solve cold case and current crimes by directly comparing evidence from the crime scene to DNA databases already on file but as the Eastside Rapist AKA Golden State Killer case proved taking DNA evidence from a crime scene and comparing to ancestry DNA files from genealogy databases can, when combined with other information, lead to the perpetrator. Until now this work still fails when insufficient amounts of high-quality genetic material are not available. “Verogen, the foremost provider of next-generation DNA testing services for law enforcement, …is developing a new test kit aimed at making genetic genealogy investigations more convenient and more feasible to use for a wider range of crime scene samples.” According to CEO Brett Williams (Verogen) “We think it’s going to be a real door-opener for public crime labs to get into next-generation sequencing.” AKA NEXTGEN (NG) sequencing is analytically more sensitive than prior PCR methods-it can reliably detect even smaller amounts of DNA. Verogen has “optimized…relative [genealogy] searches in GEDmatch” a database compiled on earlier DNA markers that they acquired in a business transaction. Using the older GEDmatch database, Verogen discovered “which genetic markers are the best predictors of kinship.” Verogen's new DNA kits focus on “15,000 data points” as compared to nearly 600,000 used by genealogy firms like Ancestry of 23andMe.
Ethical alarms go off! Being sensitive to confidentiality, Verogen has designed their system to ensure DNA donor confidentiality by “wall[ing] off those who do not wish to involve their DNA with crime-solving intrusions from law enforcement." Critics speak out. ”Natalie Ram (Law Professor University of Maryland) comments that early dialog about combining DNA technology and genealogy was that it was too cumbersome for routine use and as such would be limited “to only the most serious crimes.” Verogen and others leveraging NG have shifted the paradigm to "easy" essentially killing the "too cumbersome" argument. Such an evolution in technology follows previous trends. As each technology gets more accessible use moves from restricted use to wider use. Something else to consider, is that those participating in DNA-based genealogy didn’t necessarily consent, apriori, to having their DNA sequence data available for criminology or even other uses other than genealogy. For their part to ensure proper use, Verogen claims to having used only consented data from GEDmatch in creating their algorithms for “estimating their degree of relatedness.” It is also noted that the Verogen method won’t “scan…[parts of] the genome known to be medically important” and work is underway to ensure that other information discovered, like ethnic heritage, appearance etc. are not used to discriminate “against individuals.” But skeptics note the "genie is out of the bottle" and future discoveries will have an unpredictable impact.
Legal concerns abound as well. Ram thinks “there’s a legal argument to be made that people should have an expectation of privacy not only to the DNA that comes out of their own cells, but also for the section that reside in the chromosomes of family members.” How and who will regulate this application of DNA technology are hot topics that are playing out in legislatures and courts.
Verogen is thought now to be in half of America’s public crime labs as the switch to the newer Verogen is “a massive change in process.” Danny Hellwig (Intermountain Forensics-a non-profit) says “...because...[Verogen]...optimized [their method] for very small amounts of very low-quality DNA, he’s hopeful Verogen’s kit can help solve the estimated 250,000 murders of Americans whose killers have never been caught.” The technology can also be applied to “more than 100,000 untested rape kits”. Other potential uses include identifying human remains and searching for parents of adoptees.