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'Making' the Case: Manufactured DNA and the New Forensic Landscape
Kevin Paget, NCSTL Science and Law Fellow

This past February the National Academy of Sciences released its report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, sending shockwaves throughout every forensic discipline. The findings of this massive report cast wholesale doubt upon the many forensic sciences and the disparate conclusions drawn by different forensic analysts. The report called for new regulations to be implemented, making sure that each forensic science had consistent policies in order to avoid bad science and to promote the credibility of forensic evidence as a whole. Nuclear DNA analysis emerged virtually unscathed, the only forensic discipline not recommended for massive regulatory overhaul. Now a laboratory in Israel is claiming that highly revered DNA analysis might not be the 'bulletproof' science the NAS report declared it to be.1

Nucleix, a company based in Tel-Aviv, says that it has perfected a way to manufacture artificial DNA, claiming they have the ability to frame someone for a crime using the basic building blocks of human life.2 Taking a small DNA sample, such as saliva or hair, and combining it with blood from a donor, Nucleix has manufactured DNA with a genetic profile of its own choosing. First, the laboratory centrifuged the blood to separate the white and red blood cells.3 Then the DNA sample was expanded through genome amplification and added back to the separated red blood cells.4 In effect, the DNA carrying-white blood cells were removed and replaced with the sample DNA, creating a genetic profile identical to the DNA sample, and not the blood donor sample.5 Normal genotyping yielded no differences between the manufactured DNA and the natural unaffected DNA, showing the two as virtually identical.6 This shocking revelation poses an abundance of problems to the legal community, calling into question the once iron-clad science of DNA identification, perhaps opening the door for those presently incarcerated to question any past convictions based primarily on DNA analysis.

Admittedly, it is a long shot that a common criminal has the resources or connections to falsify DNA using this technique; in fact, this sounds more like the outlandish plot to a new legal thriller. But at least one state prosecutor worries that the mere possibility that this technology exists could be enough to cast reasonable doubt in a juror's mind, perhaps undermining the credibility and reliability of the science of nuclear DNA analysis.7 In some ways it is unfortunate that one need not read esoteric scientific journals to find out about new technological advances, such as manufactured DNA. In fact, all one needs to do is tune to network television during primetime. In a recent episode of Law and Order this specific method of manufacturing DNA was showcased, with a criminal attempting to frame a police officer with falsified DNA evidence. With this information available for mass consumption over the airwaves, jurors are being exposed to new ideas and technologies that could potentially alter the outcome of a case.

Of course, the existence of the ability to manufacture DNA does not necessarily mean that nuclear DNA analysis should be eliminated or ignored. Nucleix has concurrently developed a system to track the difference between true DNA samples and manufactured ones8 in addition to discovering the process to create false DNA samples. Because normal genotyping elicited no discernable difference between manufactured and true DNA, Nucleix had to find an alternative method to find the differences between the two. Lab created artificial DNA lacks certain methyl groups which occur naturally in un-manipulated DNA, and by searching specifically for these methyl groups, scientists could differentiate between the two types of DNA.9 This built in system to distinguish between natural and manufactured DNA takes some of the sting out of the initial shock of the idea of manipulated DNA, however there is always the chance that true DNA could be mistaken for its laboratory-created cousin, leading to a wrongful conviction. With this possibility looming, courtrooms are likely to see defenses citing manufactured DNA in the near future. On the other hand, there are those out there that believe the ability to manufacture DNA poses no real threat to the forensic discipline of nuclear DNA analysis, believing that the judicial system will weather this storm of laboratory created genetic profiles.

Some claim that the ability to manufacture DNA will not have an adverse effect on DNA analysis or the way prosecutors handle their cases.10 It is true that prosecutors typically use DNA analyses in their cases but this type of evidence is usually used in connection with other types of evidence, traditionally to bolster this other evidence.11 If there is DNA evidence that runs counter to the bulk of all the other evidence, prosecutors can either rely on the other evidence or they can initiate more DNA testing in order to uncover the problems with the DNA results.12 Prosecutors are not likely to rely on "erroneous or dangerous" DNA results, as this could hurt their case or even affect their professional reputation.13 DNA analysis may be the most accurate and reliable forensic science, but it cannot be relied upon as a substitute to conscientious investigation and preparation by prosecutors and law enforcement officers.14

Manufactured DNA is a technological breakthrough that brings up many issues dealing with the forensic discipline of nuclear DNA analysis. In the wake of the February 2009 NAS report, this new discovery is poised to bring the reliable and consistent science of DNA analysis into question. Some believe that the mere possibility of manufactured DNA can affect prosecutors' cases across the country. Some believe that this is just another novel experiment that will have no lasting effect on how DNA evidence is viewed in court. Only time will tell what effect this will have on DNA analysis as a forensic discipline, but for the time being we can sit back and marvel that scientists have discovered a way to manufacture the building blocks of a human life in a laboratory setting.

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1 Scientific American, Lab Creates Fake DNA Evidence, http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=lab-creates-fake-dna-evidence-2009-08-18 (accessed Dec. 14, 2009).
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6 FSI Genetics, Authentication of Forensic DNA Samples, http://www.fsigenetics.com/article/S1872-4973(09)00099-4/abstract (accessed Dec. 14, 2009).
7  KETV, Prosecutors Concerned About Bogus DNA, http://www.ketv.com/news/21670081/detail.html (accessed Dec. 14, 2009).
8  Discover Magazine, Think DNA Evidence Can't Be Faked? Think Again, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/ 80beats/2009/08/19/think-dna-evidence-cant-be-faked-think-again/ (accessed Dec. 14. 2009).
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10 Forensic Magazine, The DNA Connection: Who Framed DNA Analysis? http://www.forensicmag.com/ articles.asp?pid=297 (accessed Dec. 14, 2009).
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