Catching criminals with genetic tests is not an invasion of privacy

Tanya Van Cuylenborg’s killer went free for decades until DNA evidence led to his arrest in Washington State. The young Victoria woman’s boyfriend was also killed but no one has been arrested so far.

image: Canadian Forensics Inc.

The cold case was solved with the help of a genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, in just eight hours. She reluctantly helped with the investigation:

“It’s something I declined to do for a very long time. I was concerned about informed consent, about people in the genetic genealogy databases having their DNA used for a purpose they had not consented to and were not aware was a possibility (Globe and Mail, June 8, 2018)”

Moore’s reluctance had nothing to do with gathering evidence at a crime scene. If perpetrators leave evidence, such as fingerprints, at a crime scene consent is not required.

Nor does DNA evidence gathered in a public place require permission. Police don’t even need a search warrant to take a discarded coffee cup from the trash. That’s how DNA was gathered from the alleged killer and matched to DNA he left behind at the crime scene.

Moore’s reluctance had to do with the fact that the consent of dozens of people related to the alleged killer had not been given. His relatives wouldn’t even have necessarily known about the investigation.

The comparison of DNA to fingerprints is useful because it reveals the stark difference. A fingerprint indentifies one, and only one, person. DNA indentifies one person -and all of that person’s relatives.

An obvious question to ask is: “why did it take police 31 years to match the alleged killer’s DNA with that at the crime scene?” It seems like a simple thing to do until you realize that the number of discarded coffee cups, or whatever, that would have to be analyzed would be in the millions –a logistically improbable task.

That’s when an open-source genealogy database called GEDMatch came in handy. The original purpose of the database was not to catch criminals but rather to help “amateur and professional researchers and genealogists.” By May, 2018, the database had 929,000 genetic profiles.

Detectives uploaded a DNA sample from the crime scene to GEDMatch. From there, they identified ancestors and relatives of their suspect. With the help of Moore they built a family tree, incorporating marriage records and other information, and worked their way backward to find a potential suspect. It was only then that they knew whose discarded coffee cup to check.

Civil libertarians worry about the misuse of the technology by the police. However, while police need a court order to access some private sector databases like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, GEDMatch is open-source.

Civil libertarians worry about the invasion of privacy. It’s also true that in giving GEDMatch permission to share my genetic information, I might be giving access to my third cousin Fred’s genetic information. And that hapless Fred may unknowingly be part of a police investigation without his consent.

Despite all those reservations, the family tree of suspects should be open to investigation as long as the investigation doesn’t incriminate those family members in any way –the target of the investigation must be clearly stated with no fishing allowed.

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The promise and peril of CRISPR gene technology

So far, the promise of genetic engineering to cure disease has been a bit of a dud. Up until now scientists could only read our genomes – now they can write. A gene-editing tool found in bacteria, called CRISPR, is poised to achieve that goal.

CRISPR

As well as read, the old technology allowed the ability to add says Dr. Elizabeth Simpson at the University of British Columbia on CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks. She’s begun to use CRISPR in her work on aniridia, a genetic eye disease.

“In the older technology we would add the missing gene, not insert it into the genome to make the eye function properly. We had a lot of trouble making the addition produce the right amount of protein at the right time. With CRISPR, all the natural regulation is still there and can be used by the eye to heal itself. We don’t have to be as clever and it’s a faster way to go.”

CRISPR (Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats) is part of a natural bacterial defense. Scientists have known about these sections in bacterial DNA for years but they didn’t know what they were for or how they got there.

Then they discovered that these repeated clusters were sections of DNA gathered from attacking viruses: the bacteria had literally incorporated the enemy’s DNA into theirs. Still, their function remained a mystery.

Dr. Sylvain Moineau, Professor at the University of Laval, was one of the researchers to find out. He discovered that some yogurt bacteria weren’t susceptible to viral attack and some were. The ones that weren’t used the embedded viral DNA, described above, as a natural defense. These successful bacteria compared the embedded viral DNA with sections in the attacking viruses, and then cut that section out. As you can image, viruses don’t work well with gaping holes in their midsections: a pretty good defense.

While cut up viruses don’t work well, human DNA has the ability can stitch itself back up. That allows CRISPR technology to remove parts of our DNA that cause disease and replace it with functioning parts.

That’s the wonder of CRISPR. It cuts out the bad parts and inserts the good parts. Think of it as the search and replace function in word processors says Dr. Feng Zhang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was key in transforming the natural CRISPR system into a gene editing tool. For example, if I’ve misspelled CRISPR throughout this whole article, I can use the search and replace function in Word to replace all incorrect instances of CRISTR with CRISPR.

Powerful tools in the hands of the wrong people can be disastrous. It would be wonderful to cure muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease. And since permanent genetic changes can be passed on through generations, malaria could be wiped out forever by making mosquitoes resistant to the parasite.

But In the hands of bio-hackers and unethical corporations, CRISPR could wreak havoc in areas of agriculture, biology, pharmaceuticals, ecology and wildlife preservation.

Ethical debates must take place before the technology becomes widespread. It’s another reason that we need strong government regulation.