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Advances in biotechnology are powering a quantum leap in forensics that will boost the fight against crime and the identification of victims of war and disaster. A most prominent example of this quiet revolution is the 2020 conviction of the “Golden State Killer”, who had eluded law enforcement for decades after a slew of murders and rapes in 1970s and ‘80s California. His luck ran out when investigators identified their suspect after turning to next-generation sequencing (NGS) and the broad genealogical comparisons it enables.
With this pioneering step, law enforcement was able to overcome a major problem in investigations using traditional short tandem repeat (STR) DNA testing. It can only identify the person to whom the DNA belongs if a previous sample of theirs was logged in law-enforcement databases. NGS instead allowed them to establish not only a phenotype (a tall, white male with blue eyes), but also genetic matches in genealogical databases – relatives of the DNA’s originator, from whom investigators worked their way to the killer.
The website GEDmatch, popular with family-history buffs, played a key role in that detective drama of 2017 and 2018. Its owner Verogen, a leader in NGS phenotyping and forensic investigative genetic genealogy (FIGG), became part of QIAGEN in the course of an acquisition at the beginning of this year. Their combination of NGS and genealogical capabilities perfectly complemented QIAGEN’s existing leading portfolio of sample preparation and instrumentation technologies for human identification (HID) – and our vision of spreading NGS beyond life sciences and healthcare.
NGS’ huge benefit to forensics is its power to identify individuals that share key traits with the DNA of the suspect. This gives it the power to solve so-called cold cases that have confounded investigators for years, bringing justice and closure to surviving victims and the families who lost loved ones. Every unidentified perpetrator has potentially hundreds or thousands of (mostly unknown or forgotten) relatives to point the way to him or her – exactly the kind of kin that were a first clue to the Golden State Killer’s identity.
Verogen’s FIGG technology enables the identification of the tiniest genetic markers – single nucleotide variations (SNPs) – in DNA sequences. Its dedicated NGS panels provide so much detail that investigators can use its GEDmatch database to identify genetic relatives of the DNA originator in the fourth and fifth degree – up as far as great-great-great grandparents, across to first cousins once removed, down to great grand nephews and nieces. Hundreds of thousands of users have already opted in to make their samples accessible to law enforcement investigating homicides, sexual assaults and missing-person cases.
While today’s STR-based DNA analysis leads to a crime-databank match in only 30 percent of homicide cases, FIGG has the potential one day to help solve over 90 percent of cases. As forensics experts are increasingly shifting to NGS, QIAGEN expects its addition of Verogen to help build a fast-growing HID franchise with revenues of $100 million a year. In the US alone, DNA samples are taken in about a million investigations a year – and there are a million cold cases that demand renewed attention.
True to QIAGEN’s resolve to make improvements in life possible, NGS and FIGG promise to help victims by ending uncertainty around unsolved cases. They are putting more criminals like the Golden State Killer behind bars – and exonerating the innocent. They are also set to lead to a step change in the identification of casualties caused by natural disasters, wars or mass-casualty events. For example, in Ukraine NGS could be leveraged for DNA analysis of mass graves and to build a local database that would help thousands of families properly deal with their dead. The quiet revolution continues swiftly.