Roots

Home DNA tests are help­ing to solve po­lice cold cases.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - by Paul Jones Paul Jones, a for­mer pub­lisher, is a writer, a con­sul­tant and an avid ge­neal­o­gist. To learn more about DNA test­ing, check out the Canada’s His­tory Guide to DNA Test­ing, at CanadasHis­tory.ca/DNA­forBegin­ners.

Home DNA tests are help­ing to solve po­lice cold cases. By Paul Jones

In the sum­mer of 2018, news from DNA labs mo­men­tar­ily el­bowed pol­i­tics, celebri­ties, and sports from the head­lines. Con­nois­seurs of crime de­tec­tion were fas­ci­nated by the cap­ture of the al­leged “Golden State Killer,” which was promptly fol­lowed by the ar­rest of a clutch of sus­pects in com­pa­ra­bly an­cient cold cases. Re­searchers us­ing the ev­ery­day tools of ge­netic ge­neal­ogy had suc­ceeded in un­rav­el­ling mys­ter­ies that had de­fied so­lu­tion for decades. To the press and the pub­lic, it all seemed like some­thing from sci­ence fic­tion.

Reg­u­lar read­ers of this col­umn might have thought dif­fer­ently. My friend El­iz­a­beth’s strug­gle to iden­tify her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther (“Cel­lu­lar sleuthing,” Au­gust-Septem­ber 2017) was ev­ery bit as com­pli­cated as a po­lice pro­ce­dural — and she used many of the same tools and modes of think­ing. Sim­i­larly, my ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful search for my il­le­git­i­mate grand­fa­ther’s fa­ther en­tailed count­less hours of comb­ing through both his­tor­i­cal records and DNA-test find­ings.

So, if re­searchers can use DNA to iden­tify the bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents of ag­ing adoptees, the un­doc­u­mented fa­thers of nine­teenth-cen­tury “base­born” chil­dren, or even the de­tails of a cen­tury-old “switched-at-birth” hos­pi­tal er­ror, then it should come as no sur­prise that they can fig­ure out the iden­tity of a mur­derer or rapist who left his DNA at the scene of a crime just two or three decades ago.

Ac­tu­ally, as it turns out, it’s quite straight­for­ward. “Al­ready, sixty per­cent of Amer­i­cans of North­ern Euro­pean de­scent — the pri­mary group us­ing [DNA test­ing] sites — can be iden­ti­fied through such data­bases whether or not they’ve joined one them­selves,” the New

York Times re­ported in Oc­to­ber in an ar­ti­cle about a newly pub­lished study in the jour­nal Sci­ence.

“Within two or three years, ninety per­cent of Amer­i­cans of Euro­pean de­scent will be iden­ti­fi­able from their DNA, re­searchers found.” Fig­ures for Canada are not known, but they can­not be much dif­fer­ent.

CeCe Moore, the pro­fes­sional ge­neal­o­gist who has solved more than a dozen of these cases, pre­dicted to NBC News that we will see dozens of cold cases re­solved in up­com­ing months and hun­dreds over the next few years. Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylen­borg, the vic­tims in one of Moore’s earli- est cases, were Cana­di­ans. There are signs that our po­lice de­part­ments have noted these de­vel­op­ments, and it is just a mat­ter of time un­til a Cana­dian crim­i­nal is ap­pre­hended.

Since 2016, Roots has on four oc­ca­sions ex­plored the power and lim­i­ta­tions of au­to­so­mal DNA, which is to say, the DNA you in­herit equally from each par­ent. It’s also the prin­ci­pal ge­netic tool used in re­solv­ing these crim­i­nal cases.

The ad­vent of ge­netic cy­ber-sleuthing is just the most dra­matic of the many de­vel­op­ments in the sci­ence and busi­ness of DNA test­ing that have taken place since this col­umn be­gan. Here are some oth­ers:

• GED­match, the open-data DNA web­site used by Moore and oth­ers to iden­tify crim­i­nals from their DNA, has changed its terms of ser­vice to ac­knowl­edge this use by law en­force­ment. The terms ex­pressly for­bid use by po­lice in non-vi­o­lent crimes. Pri­vacy crit­ics are not happy. I plan to write fur­ther about these eth­i­cal is­sues in a fu­ture col­umn. • Two rep­utable com­pa­nies (Liv­ing DNA and MyHer­itage) have joined the three al­ready on the scene (23andMe, Ances­tryDNA, and Fam­ily Tree DNA) in of­fer­ing af­ford­able, high-qual­ity tests to the ge­nealog­i­cal com­mu­nity. (Re­gret­tably, out­moded tests are still be­ing sold to the un­wary by other ven­dors, of­ten us­ing con­fus­ingly sim­i­lar names.) Costs are drop­ping, and whole-genome se­quenc­ing is now be­com­ing an op­tion for the well heeled; within two years, it should be af­ford­able for the av­er­age re­searcher.

• There has been an ex­plo­sion in the avail­abil­ity of third-party an­a­lytic tools, such as GED­match, that help re­searchers to an­a­lyze and to vi­su­al­ize their ge­netic find­ings.

• The de­sign and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of eth­nic, re­gional, and na­tional analy­ses etc. (“ad­mix­ture”) are con­stantly im­prov­ing but still have a long way to go. It re­mains the case that most peo­ple who know the ori­gins of all four of their grand­par­ents will dis­cover lit­tle that is both un­ex­pected and re­li­able. How­ever, ad­mix­ture tests are in­creas­ingly help­ful in cases of adop­tion or il­le­git­i­macy, where any clue about an un­known par­ent or grand­par­ent may be the cat­a­lyst needed to make a break­through.

DNA test­ing has rev­o­lu­tion­ized ge­neal­ogy.

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