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Fusing Forensics and Genomics

The aim of the Forensic Genomics Innovation Hub is it to work in the field of forensic DNA analysis and combine the technologies already used in clinical genomics with the needs in forensics. We want to establish new beneficial methods in the forensic DNA analysis in the UK to support our police and judicial system in the best way we can. Especially cases where the routine methods are reaching there limits our knowledge and newly established laboratory will be of great help.

But what actually is a forensic DNA analysis? If you google it you will be guided to DNA profiling or DNA genetic fingerprinting. So what it basically does is that it searches for DNA in biological stains of a crime scene and then compare the found DNA with the DNA of known people which can be the victim, an eyewitness or the suspect. The stains can be various: from a visible blood stain, a used tissue or invisible skin abrasion on a screw driver, all of them are suitable for a DNA analysis today. Even though it is possible to look at the complete genome of a person nowadays, normally only a tiny part of the genome, which is non-coding (a sequence that is there but actually has no duties), is needed to distinguish two people and you will have a fully unique pattern for every person you look at. This pattern is called the genetic fingerprint or the DNA profile of a person. This video on YouTube explains it a little bit further if you are interested:

And what does genomics mean? Well genomics is a field of research that is looking at the structure of the genome or tiny parts of the genome, the function of these parts, and the role of these parts in developing a certain disease. It’s aim is to understand genetic variety and why certain variants cause damage to the human body or mind.  This understanding will be needed to cure certain disease in the future. One fantastic success story of genomics is the one of 4 year old Jessica suffering from a rare condition:

But why combine these two, didn’t I just say that you don’t need to look at the whole genome to identify one person? Basically that’s true but the routinely used genetic fingerprint is like looking at a forest without looking closely on the single parts of the forest. Of course you will clearly identify the forest as a forest but you might miss some information like a tiny bird sitting in a tree. This might not be important in an easy case where your stain only is derived by a single person, but imagine a stain derived by three or four person, the closer you look at it the more you can distinguish between these three. This is why methods that were originally developed in genomics can be very helpful in forensics. In the Netherlands one pioneer of using new technologies in Forensics is Dr. Peter de Knijff from Leiden University. He was the first expert successfully solving a crime by using a next generation sequencing approach (the so called NextGenerationSequencing or MassiveParallelSequencing). His fast forward approach and enthusiasm is very inspiring. You can read about the case in this interview with Peter de Knijff:

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