Unlocking the “silent witness” of DNA

Dr Dennis McNevin
Associate Professor (Forensic Genetics)
Faculty of Education, Science, Technology and Mathematics (ESTeM)
University of Canberra


There are two new frontiers on the horizon for forensic genetics and they are both entwined. Firstly, DNA will increasingly be exploited for intelligence information in addition to its current role as a means of including and excluding individuals as potential DNA donors. This will be conflated with (but should not be confused with) the second frontier marked by the arrival of new DNA sequencing technologies that will eventually replace capillary electrophoresis (CE) as currently employed in Australian forensic laboratories.
The use of so-called next generation sequencing (NGS) or massively parallel sequencing (MPS) is standard practice in genome biology and medical diagnostics. It is now also a viable option for forensic DNA analysis. It is a matter of when, not if, MPS will replace CE as the standard DNA genotyping platform. It will enable orders of magnitude increases in throughput as well as unlocking the intelligence value of DNA. Simultaneously with this technology, numerous panels of genetic markers are being developed to determine identity, lineage, biogeographical ancestry (BGA) and externally visible characteristics (EVCs). These will combine with MPS to revolutionise the forensic landscape.
In this presentation, I will outline how much intelligence information we can already extract from DNA and how likely we are to achieve the “holy grail” of producing a molecular photofit. There is certainly room for improvement on the photofits produced from eyewitness accounts which are notoriously unreliable. I will also examine the future role of DNA from the crime scene to the courtroom.