Since the first use of DNA in a 1986 criminal case, science and technology have opened additional doors of opportunity to employ DNA in the legal field and beyond. Today, DNA not only helps place suspects at crime scenes, but it also enables forensic genealogists to solve cases that went cold decades ago. Many people see DNA as usable only for criminal investigations and, in some cases, medical studies, but modern technology has also allowed both researchers and practitioners in many fields to use DNA as a consumer good. The history of DNA use began in a courtroom, but it’s moving into counselor’s offices, food labs and archives.
The future of DNA research and application offers exciting opportunities, as well. For instance, Dr. Francis Collins, the physician-geneticist who led the Human Genome Project to map human DNA, remarked in an interview on PBS that:
Cancer is a disease of the genome. And that’s what happens. You make mistakes in a cell somewhere in your body that causes it to start to grow when it should’ve stopped, and that’s cancer. And those mistakes are mistakes of DNA.
Does finding the cure for cancer lie in DNA? Probably. And therefore, it rests in the hands of DNA professionals.
In this article, we cover the transition from DNA as a tool for criminal investigation to DNA as a consumer good. To recognize what’s possible in the future, first take a look at the history of DNA.
The History of DNA
Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher first identified DNA in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick, a biologist and a physicist respectively, recognized that DNA exists as a three-dimensional double helix. After that, DNA research and its applications began to accelerate. By the 1980s, labs were using DNA to establish paternity in questioned cases. In 1986, investigators asked a young geneticist named Alec Jeffreys, who two years earlier had developed the genetic fingerprint, to assist with solving a murder case. Jeffreys’ research was already helping establish evidence in other legal matters, so why not try it on the most hideous crime of all?
Two 15-year-old girls had been sexually assaulted and murdered. A teenage male with learning difficulties stood accused of the crime. In fact, he confessed to one murder but not both. Hoping to pin both killings on the boy, police hired Jeffreys and his team to prove that the teen had done it. They couldn’t. In fact, they proved that the boy committed neither crime. Now with no leads, police and Jeffreys began to create genetic profiles of men within the area. When someone reported that a local baker named Colin Pitchfork had boasted that he’d submitted a friend’s DNA, police nabbed him. Jeffreys and his team successfully matched Pitchfork’s DNA with that found at the crime scene.
Jeffreys’ work captured the public’s imagination. Even today popular crime procedurals such as CSI and NCIS frequently use DNA evidence as plot twists, making the public and consequently potential jurors aware of the power of DNA. What many people don’t know, however, is that it took years of legal wrangling to determine how and when courts would accept DNA evidence. Databases and laboratories had to meet uniform standards. The ethical issues of maintaining databases of felons’ DNA had to be wrestled with. And uniform testing procedures had to be established. DNA evidence also helped free several unjustly imprisoned people, giving rise to new areas of concerns and ethical considerations for scientists and lawyers.
As for Jeffreys, the original DNA fingerprint researcher, he went on to study the effects of radiation exposure on DNA. His colleagues in the field also spotted other applications for DNA work, such as mapping the human genome.
In 1990, the Human Genome Project launched. Researchers in this project undertook the mammoth task of mapping a human being’s DNA. Within 13 years, the team had completed what it set out to do. The work involved an ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) program that began to set parameters around DNA research, its uses and its impacts. Collins, the project’s head, said in the same piece for PBS:
Let’s see what kind of protections we need to put in place so that people don’t get injured as a result of what should be a wonderful revolution in medicine and science. The most pressing issue right now – seems like a pedestrian one, but boy, we need to solve it. And that’s this issue of genetic discrimination.
While the Human Genome Project was underway, Scottish scientists began experimenting with a much more controversial use of DNA. Cloning. In 1996, researchers at the Roslin Institute cloned a white Dorset Finn sheep they named Dolly. She was the only lamb to survive out of 277 attempts. Before long, fruit flies and mice had had their DNA mapped. And by late in the year 2000, German researchers had mapped the DNA of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal, opening a massive portal to understanding human origins and evolution.
Scientists also realized the potential of mapping viruses and bacteria, which could give way to new and exciting breakthroughs in healthcare.
What We Can Do with DNA Today
It’s been less than 40 years since legal experts first won a case based on DNA evidence. Since then, however, scientific knowledge of and public interest in genetics has flourished. DNA is advancing into new frontiers across a range of industries.
Each of these industrial changes raises a new crop of ethical questions. Creating genealogical databases filled with DNA information could be hacked by bad actors. Genetic counseling could veer into eugenics. Personalized medicine could provide one quality of care for the rich and another for the poor. Biological weapons that target individuals could save lives in some warfare situations but destroy entire ethnicities in others. Bioethicists who work with DNA applications bear a grave responsibility to the future to do their work well.
Biological information technology professionals can collect, store and analyze complex biological data to apply to fields such as waste cleanup, climate change, antibiotic resistance, personalized medicine and biological weaponry. Historians can even use DNA to trace the evolutionary history of organisms.
“New genetic-engineering tools are expanding the range of malicious uses of biology and decreasing the amount of time needed to carry them out,” reported a study cited in the MIT Technology Review. Though biological warfare conducted at scale dates at least as far back as World War I, using DNA to create weapons that could exploit the genetic differences between ethnicities is thoroughly modern, and it reflects Collins’ earlier-mentioned concerns about genetic discrimination. While much of the research and development in biological warfare happens under wraps, militaries and paramilitary groups throughout the world have a strong interest in and capability with DNA-targeting as a weapon of war.
Searching the family tree has evolved into America’s second-most popular hobby and second-most-searched internet category, according to USA Today. Genealogy is now a $3 billion per year industry with companies such as Ancestry and MyHeritage leading the way. Inexpensive, easy-to-take and at home genetic testing kits are letting hobbyists discover their great-great-grandparents and beyond. They’re also providing the resources for forensic genealogists who are helping law enforcement officials use DNA to track down missing suspects, victims and family members of people involved in crimes. Those DNA results also help identify human remains and notify families about long-lost relatives.
“Genetic counseling is a process to evaluate and understand a family’s risk of an inherited medical condition,” according to the National Society of Genetic Counselors. “A genetic counselor is a healthcare professional with specialized training in medical genetics and counseling.” These professionals conduct research, meet with patients and help make important medical decisions usually in a prenatal, pediatric or cancer environment. Genetic counselors can help identify patterns of genetic conditions in the family in order to equip patients with the knowledge needed to decide on a course of treatment.
Genetic engineers can use DNA to modify the biological structure of an organism, such as a plant grown for human consumption, for example, and improve global diets and food distribution.
DNA’s value in public investigation goes beyond murder scenes. Investigators can employ DNA to determine paternity, thus helping ensure child support payments or even prosecution for sex crimes.
Personalized medicine matches tailored healthcare to a patient’s unique biological makeup. Physicians and other medical care providers create personalized plans using pharmacogenomics, the study of how medicines affect the body. Deep knowledge of DNA lets doctors determine what medicines are right for the individual patient, which ones are most likely to have toxic side effects and which will likely prove ineffective due to a patient’s genetic identity.
Uses for DNA has advanced rapidly over the last few decades, and it’s likely that its versatility will increase in the future. People looking for exciting careers that make a real-world impact using biology and DNA can find them by preparing for careers in medical science. The convenient online medical laboratory science program from the University of West Florida is designed with working MLT professionals in mind so you can earn your degree and become an MLS while balancing your busy life. After graduation and certification, you’ll be prepared for jobs in research and reference labs, blood banks, crime labs and more.