Reporter 408, 20 October 1997


Cell breakthrough is bad news for criminals

A discarded cigarette butt, a licked stamp or even a single fleck of dandruff could soon be used to track down killers and other criminals, thanks to ground-breaking research by a University scientist.

Pathologist Ian Findlay has developed a new way of speedily identifying a DNA ‘fingerprint’ – an individual’s unique genetic marker – from just one cell. This breakthrough will revolutionise forensic science and make it easier for the police to obtain accurate DNA profiles of offenders within a few hours.

“It’s possible to conceive of there being no scientific barrier to the detection of crime,” said Ian Findlay, who worked with the Birmingham Forensic Science Service to develop a technique known as short tandem repeat (STR) profiling. This identifies six ‘microsatellite’ markers and their configuration in each sample, resulting in a far more reliable result than previous efforts at DNA fingerprinting. It also reveals the individual’s sex.

Using this method, the chance of two people producing an identical result are 100 million to one. The technique is still being refined, and researchers hope that forensic scientists will be using it to help send criminals to the cells within two years.

A murderer who drops a cigarette at the scene of the crime, a kidnapper who licks the stamp on a ransom note and individuals who take part in gang rape will all leave vital clues which could put them behind bars, thanks to the technique developed by Ian Findlay and his colleagues. It is thought that the technique could also be used to help solve old crimes, even going as far back as those committed by the original Jack the Ripper.

“Obviously, there is more work to be done to perfect the technique,” explained Mr Findlay. “But this is the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for.” Results of the study, funded by the Medical Research Council, were revealed in Nature magazine earlier this month. Television and radio stations from Johannesburg to San Francisco have been queuing up to cover news of the breakthrough, which also received extensive media coverage in this country.

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