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Putting a fresh face on DNA to identify suspects

Researchers analysing DNA Dr Dennis McNevin and colleagues at UC’s forensic lab | Watch video

Using DNA traces to paint a full 'photofit' picture of crime suspects

In standard forensic practice, DNA profiling is used to identify individuals from trace quantities of biological materials left behind at crime scenes, including blood, hairs and even fingerprints.

University of Canberra forensic genetics expert Dr Dennis McNevin is working to take the science a step further – to use DNA to actually create a 'photofit' of what a suspect looks like.

"Photofits have been used routinely in the past, formed from eyewitness accounts, but these are notoriously unreliable," Dr McNevin explains. "We are developing ways that allow us to identify an individual, as well as predict their ancestry, eye and hair colour, all in the one examination."

This can now be done faster and cheaper than current methods used in forensic laboratories. As a result, better DNA profiling techniques with far more information are available to forensic investigators for little extra cost.

But it's the potential to actually create a photofit of a suspect that is most exciting. "Currently, if there are no suspects or very many of them, we have no-one with whom to match a DNA profile," Dr McNevin, says. That's why his team is constantly looking for any added value that may be obtained from a DNA sample.

Already able to predict a person's biogeographical ancestry, eye colour and hair colour from their DNA, the research team is investigating what other traits can be added.

"This is a central part of our research," Dr McNevin explains, "with our ultimate aim, perhaps some time away, being the reconstruction of a full suite of biometric traits – face and fingerprints from a single trace of DNA."