Advances in Biochemistry to Fight Crime
Deoxyribonucleic acid is the basis for chromosomes and transmits genetic material from one generation to the next.
But, since the mid-1980s, scientists have been finding ways to broaden DNA’s primary use. Police have used this basic genetic material to close the book on investigations for many years, but DNA’s potential has now come to the attention of commercial operators to fight crime.
Ron Taylor, managing director of research company DNA Technologies, says DNA is now being used for much broader applications than police investigations.
The corporate sector has realised its potential as an anti-counterfeit agent and is now using it as a copy-proof code on everything from wine bottles and casino chips to clothing and footwear. The products are encoded with an individual, unique DNA-based mark. “The majority of DNA products are for anti-counterfeit and some are to control licensed manufacturers. Because so much (production) is offshore, a lot of companies need tight controls,” Mr Taylor says.
For example, if a manufacturer is licensed to make 100,000 garments, but makes 150,000, the extra garments traditionally are sold on black markets. DNA codes can check the number of items produced. DNA was used to prevent the spread of fake Sydney Olympics merchandise after research conducted by past Olympic bodies found that up to 40% of merchandise sold was counterfeit. DNA coding reduced the figure to less than 0.5 percent. DNA has very broad potential. DNA Technologies is currently working on weaving it into fabrics. It can also stop important documents being counterfeited.
DNA is introduced into the ink, becoming almost “invisible” – part of the print. In a court room, a scientific analysis of the ink will reveal the unique DNA code. But there is still more potential for DNA use. Mr Taylor says his company has secured the rights to new DNA technologies, including a hard-surface patent. Hard-surface DNA codes can store more data “in a smaller spot”. They are designed for use on credit cards and valuable items. An ingestible product will be on the market within four months. Putting DNA into food and drugs can ensure the product is genuine.
A DNA code can prevent major product contamination recalls, like the March 2000 Herron Pharmaceuticals extortion, where tablets were laced with strychnine and repackaged by an extortionist. Herron was forced to conduct a national recall. A DNA code on the packaging or the products would have determined which packets were contaminated, avoiding the expensive, nationwide recall. Law enforcers say DNA is the best thing to happen to crime scene investigations since fingerprinting. Last January, a Queensland man who had been convicted of rape was released after 10 months in jail. DNA tests, not available at the trial, found he could not have been responsible for the rape.
The Queensland Crime & Misconduct Commission found no one was to blame for the wrongful conviction. Senior sergeant Ken Sanderson, from the Western Australian police service crime scene unit,
says DNA databases help clear outstanding crimes, quickly identify serial offenders, eliminate suspects and link suspects to other crime scenes. A DNA database is a deterrent and, with DNA evidence readily accepted by courts, trials are shorter. Police also use DNA to identify victims of major disasters and back-capture convicted offenders.
In England, after legislation to establish a national DNA database was passed in 1995, more than one million people’s DNA make-up is now on file. Since 1995, 122,732 matches linking crime scenes to suspects or current prisoners have been made.
The Queensland police force has been using a database for a year, has 10,000 samples on file, and has so far linked more than 100 criminals to other crime scenes. Gone are the days of crooks simply wiping away their fingerprints. Today a hair, an eyelash or a skin fragment is all the police require to positively identify the perpetrator of a crime.