|Scientists unlock DIY DNA
DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated,
Andrew Pollack - NYT -
August 17, 2009
Over the past twenty years, DNA analysis has revolutionized
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Any biology undergraduate could perform this," said Dan Frumkin, lead
author of the paper, published in the journal Genetics
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.
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