Scientist calls for world DNA database
Alok Jha, science correspondent
Monday April 11, 2005
Everyone in the world should have their genetic profile stored on a database, but the information should be held independently of the authorities, according to the pioneer of DNA fingerprinting.
Current practice means that only the DNA of criminals is stored in most countries and the information is held by government agencies.
At a lecture on Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the discovery of DNA fingerprinting, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, of Leicester University, said a global DNA database would have been invaluable in attempting to identify victims of the recent tsunami. Instead, investigators faced endless searches through incomplete records, or having to cause further distress to relatives of the victims.
Prof Jeffreys criticised the current version of the UK criminal DNA database and expressed concern about new laws that allow the authorities to add people who have not been convicted of any crime.
"Having your DNA profile on a database makes sense to you as an individual," he told his audience. "If any of you had been in Thailand or Indonesia on holiday and, heaven forbid, killed by the tsunami, how would you have been identified? If your DNA profile is on that database, you can look in there and immediately carry out the identification. It is worth considering having your profile in the database."
But he urged caution on who should be given access to such information. Any new database should keep names and addresses separate from DNA information, so that casual hackers could not get access to it. In addition, the means by which authorities should gain access to the information should be strictly controlled.
Echoing remarks he made last year, the geneticist said the criminal DNA database was not sophisticated enough to prevent false positives. "The chances of two unrelated people matching is 1 in 10 trillion - that is not good enough."
The criminal DNA database contains records of 2.7 million UK citizens. Each record contains details of 10 specific sites (called microsatellites) on the human genome. Last year, Prof Jeffreys urged the police to increase the number of markers they recorded to at least 15 to head off problems.
He said new laws affecting decisions on whose DNA information was entered into the criminal database also concerned him. Previously only people convicted of a recordable offence went on the database. Now, "if you are taken to a police station in the context of a police investigation, the police have a right to demand a DNA test from you, and that profile will go on the database and stay there. That is a potentially serious infringement of civil liberties."
"Another area the police are interested in is rummaging around in DNA variation that tells you about the physical appearance of a person - ethnic origin, hair colour, eye colour, stature, facial appearance," he said. "I regard that as a massive infringement of genetic privacy."
On a more positive note, he described how making DNA fingerprints would become easier and cheaper. "There's a great deal of talk about a lab on a chip," he said. "People are now looking at ... miniaturising the whole process."
Speeding up DNA fingerprinting would lead to many new applications, not least in security. Instead of typing in a credit card pin number at the supermarket, people might just give a DNA sample. Spitting on a DNA testing chip at the checkout, he joked, might be the way people pay for their groceries in future.