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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Measurements & testing projects > Standardised DNA profiles catch mobile offenders
Graphic element Standardised DNA profiles catch mobile offenders
    09-06-2000
 

DNA profiling has become a standard technique in criminal investigations because scientists are able to extract what is in effect an identity card from the smallest samples of biological material - such as a single hair or a drop of blood. However, laboratories involved in forensic DNA profiling across Europe have developed a range of methods and techniques over recent years, the results of which are often incomparable. Standardisation means that although serial offenders may be able to run, they will not be able to hide.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the genetic material found in the cells of all living things and, with the exception of identical twins, the complete DNA of an individual is unique. DNA typing - also known as DNA fingerprinting - is used to identify criminals by comparing fragments of DNA extracted from biological samples found at the crime scene, such as hair, blood and sperm, to that of suspects.

Clear need for standardisation

Scientific progress in this area has advanced rapidly over recent years and has resulted in different forensic laboratories using different techniques and typing systems. In addition, there are many different genetic markers that can be analysed. As a result, it has not only proven difficult to compare data from one laboratory with that of another, it is also difficult to check the quality of laboratory work - essential when people's future freedom may rest on the findings.

The clear need for standardisation is being addressed in a three-year programme of work being funded by the European Commission. Scheduled to end in August 2000, the STADNAP project brings together 20 forensic laboratories and other related organisations from 16 European countries, and is being led by the Institute of Forensic Medicine (IFM) at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain.


To achieve its objectives, the partners have divided themselves into four working groups:

Surveying the state of the art

Working group one was tasked with a survey of the current state of the art, and has identified the key markers and technologies recommended for use by the forensic community.

In addition, the group has also been looking at new technologies and identified certain problems that will need to be addressed in future. For example, some of the emerging technologies are complicated and require the use of expensive equipment not normally found in laboratories; this is likely to be a stumbling point for widespread introduction. The group is therefore emphasising the need for STADNAP to maintain close contacts with R&D-based organisations to promote standardisation while encouraging the development of new techniques.

  Carrying out transnational comparisons

Working group two has been carrying out comparison exercises, and has demonstrated the reliability of transnational data comparisons for both Y chromosome analysis and another important marker, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), by sending out control samples to participating laboratories. The group has also produced recommendations and guidelines for the scientific community regarding the use of mtDNA and Y chromosome polymorphisms in forensic casework.

In addition, the group has examined the lack of suitable control samples to compare the efficiency of different analysis systems. In forensic science, DNA samples have often been degraded by ultraviolet light, humidity and decay. Experiments to determine the best way to provide control samples of degraded DNA have been carried out at the Institute fur Rechtmedizin, part of the Johannes Gutenberg Universitate Mainz in Germany. The experiments are almost complete, and it is hoped that a commercial company will step forward to make the required quantities of degraded DNA available.

  Encouraging technology transfer

Working group 3 has concentrated on technology transfer between the partners, in addition to setting up a web site to promote the work of STADNAP. Seven visits of up to two weeks in duration have enabled various partners to visit the laboratories in other countries. "The exchanges of personnel between labs has proven to be a valuable instrument for the development of common standards, and ten further exchange visits are being planned," says Professor Angel Carracedo of the IFM.

Also as part of the technology transfer work package, STADNAP has recently launched a fellowship programme inviting applications from laboratories who wish to extend their level of expertise in forensic DNA testing and believe they could benefit from a period of training at one of the member laboratories of STADNAP.

  Compiling population databases

Working group four set out to compile two anonymous population databases to help analyse population variations across Europe and to facilitate adequate estimates of gene frequencies in forensic casework. One of the databases is for mtDNA, the other is for short tandem repeated polymorphisms, sections of DNA which, as their name implies, contain repeated sequences that can be used for identification purposes. The databases will eventually be made available through the Internet and also as CD-ROMs.

   
Clear need for standardisation
Surveying the state of the art
Carrying out transnational comparisons
Encouraging technology transfer
Compiling population databases
   

Key data

A thematic network has been set up under the Measurements and testing generic activity to standardise DNA profiling across Europe.

The project will help to ensure that mobile serial offenders can be readily identified across national borders, and provide a check on the quality of laboratory results.

Project: STADNAP - Standardisation of DNA profiling techniques in the European Union (SMT4977506)

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