GATTACA, Here We Come!

by on March 27, 2009 · 11 comments

Fascinating article in the WSJ today:  “To Sketch a Thief: Genes Draw Likeness of Suspects In the Field of DNA Forensics, Scientists Identify Genetic Markers for Traits Revealing Appearance and Ethnicity.”

Forensic experts are increasingly relying on DNA as “a genetic eyewitness,” says Jack Ballantyne, associate director for research at the National Center for Forensic Science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who is studying whether a DNA sample can reveal a person’s age. “We’d like to say if the DNA found on a bomb fragment comes from the young man who carried the bomb or from the wizened old mastermind who built it.”

The push to predict physical features from genetic material is known as DNA forensic phenotyping, and it’s already helped crack some difficult investigations. In 2004, police caught a Louisiana serial killer who eyewitnesses had suggested was white, but whose crime-scene DNA suggested — correctly — that he was black. Britain’s forensic service uses a similar “ethnic inference” test to trace murderers and rapists.

It goes almost without saying that the first impulse of many is to ban this evolving area of technology:

Worried about the ethical and social challenges, Germany doesn’t permit the forensic use of DNA to infer ethnicity or physical traits. Nor do a handful of U.S. states, including Indiana, Wyoming and Rhode Island. The U.K. and the Netherlands allow it.

The main downside I can see to the use of this technology in crime-fighting is that it would be disastrous for the genre of crime fiction.  While it certainly sounds like something out of GATTACA (my favorite movie of all time), it would have killed the plot:  The genetic-GESTAPO probably would have known that our genetically-defective hero Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) was not in fact, the genetically-engineered-but-crippled superman Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) he claimed to be—and the whole plot would have gone up in smoke.  How much fun would that have been?

Interestingly, it seems Hulu once made the entire film available online but no longer does so.  Fie on them and their conspiracy to suppress the future!  Damn it, Hulu, don’t you know that “There Is No Gene For The Human Spirit?”

  • dm

    Another other downside is that it's one of those tests that really screws you when it fails. As Bruce Schneier likes to point out, a mistake in performing tests like this can lead to erroneous results, but because the tests are regarded as “infallible”, the people at the receiving end of the mistake are screwed. Not necessarily a fatal flaw (except for the criminal executed on erroneous DNA evidence), but something to keep in mind.

    Yesterday's news brought an amusing example of yet another problem: http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/0

    For eight years police in Europe have been hunting a random criminal because her DNA keeps turning up on the cotton swabs police use at crime scenes. The problem: the cotton swabs all come from the same company.

  • MikeRT

    This would make an excellent subject in Eric Holder's “honest talk about race.” Why should anyone bat an eye at using DNA to figure out the race or ethnicity of the perp? As it currently stands, blacks already commit a disproportionate number of crimes, and that creates a tendency to be biased toward assuming the perp is black for certain crimes. DNA evidence has the potential to make it easier to figure out sooner what race the person is, so you can at least exclude every other race than the perps' race from the profile. That should have the effect of making racial profiling somewhat less common, and make it easier for innocent minorities to be exonerated faster.

  • http://www.baeblemusic.com/ Alex Szoka

    yeah bro, Gattaca is one of the best flicks ever!

  • http://www.baeblemusic.com/ Alex Szoka

    yeah bro, gattaca is one of the best flick ever!

  • http://www.baeblemusic.com/ Alex Szoka

    yeah bro, Gattaca is one of the best flicks ever!

  • http://www.baeblemusic.com/ Alex Szoka

    yeah bro, gattaca is one of the best flick ever!

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