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Scientists unlock DIY DNA
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DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated, Scientists Show

Andrew Pollack - NYT - August 17, 2009

An example of a DNA recordOver the past twenty years, DNA analysis has revolutionized forensic science, and has become a dominant tool in law enforcement now scientists in Israel have demonstrated that it is possible to fabricate DNA evidence, undermining the credibility of what has been considered the gold standard of proof in criminal cases.

The scientists fabricated blood and saliva samples containing DNA from a person other than the donor of the blood and saliva. They also showed that if they had access to a DNA profile in a database, they could construct a sample of DNA to match that profile without obtaining any tissue from that person.

“You can just engineer a crime scene,” said Dan Frumkin, lead author of the paper, which has been published online by the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics. “Any biology undergraduate could perform this.”

Dr. Frumkin is a founder of Nucleix, a company based in Tel Aviv that has developed a test to distinguish real DNA samples from fake ones that it hopes to sell to forensics laboratories.

The planting of fabricated DNA evidence at a crime scene is only one implication of the findings. A potential invasion of personal privacy is another.

Using some of the same techniques, it may be possible to scavenge anyone’s DNA from a discarded drinking cup or cigarette butt and turn it into a saliva sample that could be submitted to a genetic testing company that measures ancestry or the risk of getting various diseases. Celebrities might have to fear “genetic paparazzi,” said Gail H. Javitt of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Tania Simoncelli, science adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, said the findings were worrisome.

“DNA is a lot easier to plant at a crime scene than fingerprints,” she said. “We’re creating a criminal justice system that is increasingly relying on this technology.”

John M. Butler, leader of the human identity testing project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said he was “impressed at how well they were able to fabricate the fake DNA profiles.” However, he added, “I think your average criminal wouldn’t be able to do something like that.”

The scientists fabricated DNA samples two ways. One required a real, if tiny, DNA sample, perhaps from a strand of hair or drinking cup. They amplified the tiny sample into a large quantity of DNA using a standard technique called whole genome amplification.

Of course, a drinking cup or piece of hair might itself be left at a crime scene to frame someone, but blood or saliva may be more believable.

The authors of the paper took blood from a woman and centrifuged it to remove the white cells, which contain DNA. To the remaining red cells they added DNA that had been amplified from a man’s hair.

Since red cells do not contain DNA, all of the genetic material in the blood sample was from the man. The authors sent it to a leading American forensics laboratory, which analyzed it as if it were a normal sample of a man’s blood.

The other technique relied on DNA profiles, stored in law enforcement databases as a series of numbers and letters corresponding to variations at 13 spots in a person’s genome.

From a pooled sample of many people’s DNA, the scientists cloned tiny DNA snippets representing the common variants at each spot, creating a library of such snippets. To prepare a DNA sample matching any profile, they just mixed the proper snippets together. They said that a library of 425 different DNA snippets would be enough to cover every conceivable profile.

Nucleix’s test to tell if a sample has been fabricated relies on the fact that amplified DNA — which would be used in either deception — is not methylated, meaning it lacks certain molecules that are attached to the DNA at specific points, usually to inactivate genes

Scientists unlock DIY DNA
Austin Modine - The Register 18th August 2009

Scientists in Tel Aviv say they've demonstrated that DNA evidence can easily be faked to match the wrong person - assuming the nefarious framer has access to a biology lab and DNA database.

The boffins fabricated phony DNA using blood and saliva samples to match someone else's profile without any tissue from that person, reports the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/science/18dna.html?_r=2). They claim the procedure can be done by "anyone with basic equipment and know-how" and is indistinguishable from the real thing using current forensic procedures.

"Any biology undergraduate could perform this," said Dan Frumkin, lead author of the paper, published in the journal Genetics (http://www.fsigenetics.com/article/S1872-4973%2809%2900099-4/abstract). The paper asserts that the possibility of DNA evidence being fudged to finger someone else has been overlooked by law enforcement, which has come to rely on DNA matching as a centerpiece of conviction and exoneration of criminal suspects.

The scientists said they counterfeited DNA samples in two ways. One required a small sample of the scapegoat's DNA, and the other constructed from a DNA database.

For the first technique, the paper's authors took blood from a woman and removed the white blood cells containing DNA in a centrifuge. They then added DNA from a man that had been amplified from a single strand of his hair using a standard technique called whole genome amplification. The scientists then sent the sample to a top American forensic laboratory, which analyzed the sample as belonging to the man without detecting genetic shenanigans.

The second technique used samples from a DNA database to match a desired profile. The authors simply mixed and matched DNA snippets from their database to fabricate a phony profile. According to the NYT, the scientists claim a person only needs a mere 425 DNA samples to mimic a profile of any person they want.

Of course, the average criminal looking to frame someone unlucky sod would have a far easier time just leaving bits of the person's hair or blood around rather than bother with this DNA business. The research, though, could be a boon to conspiracy theorists everywhere and at least worth another spin-off for the CSI franchise.

Nevertheless, Frumkin is also rather conveniently the founder of a company called Nucleix, which has developed a test to detect whether DNA samples are real or faked - by the very technique Frumkin's team has demonstrated. They hope to sell the test to forensic labs - which in all likelihood would be needed as part of any fake DNA conspiracy in the first place.


See also:
Smith's DNA database by stealth
Retaining DNA samples of innocents breaches human rights
Judge wants everyone in UK on DNA database
DNA helps EU crack crime
DNA 'could predict your surname'

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