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DNA Phenotyping

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 5/23/2016 Category: Science
Updated: 5 months ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 193 times Debate No: 91722
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In June, the Supreme Court ruled that it is constitutional to take DNA samples from people who

have been arrested for serious crimes"without a warrant, much less a conviction. Like bits of DNA

taken from people found guilty, those samples can be entered into a database and used not only for the

case at hand, but compared to other crime scene samples, connecting the arrestee to past crimes.

The case before the Supreme Court focused on Alonzo Jay King, Jr., who was arrested for assault in

Wicomico County,"Maryland, in 2009 after pointing a gun at several people. Although the police didn"t

need DNA to link King to the crime"they had eyewitness testimony, and King himself admitted what

he"d done"they took a cheek swab. Maryland law says that people merely arrested"not yet

convicted"of a violent crime can have their DNA taken and entered into the national database. King"s

DNA then linked him to an unsolved 2003 rape, for which he was found guilty. King and his lawyers

challenged that conviction on the basis that the DNA sample was an unreasonable search.

Certain information encoded in DNA, seen here in

an x-ray data visualization, is being increasingly

collected and stored by law enforcement


The Supreme Court upheld Maryland"s

law"narrowly, five to four. Five of the justices,

led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said that

taking DNA from arrestees was a "reasonable

search" with a large public safety payoff,

comparable to fingerprinting for identification.

Four disagreed, with a blistering dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia saying that the decision violated

Fourth Amendment rights; Scalia wrote, "Make no mistake about it: As an entirely predictable

consequence of today"s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if

you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason."

Today, 28 states and the federal government already collect genetic samples from people

arrested for serious crimes (mostly felonies, though some jurisdictions include certain misdemeanors as

well), while the remaining 22 states only take samples from people convicted of those crimes. The

recent ruling is likely to have wide-reaching implications"both for states that already have databases

and for those that don"t, yet.

Depending on whom you ask, DNA databases herald a future of either lower crime or less

privacy. Many of the arguments echo the Supreme Court ruling and dissent: Proponents say the

databases help police catch dangerous criminals faster and identify offenders who had eluded detection,

thus providing a big pay-off for each law enforcement dollar. Others object to the databases on the

grounds that they violate privacy by storing genetic data, are an inefficient use of limited resources, or

are likely to encompass more and more people"perhaps including those never even suspected of a

DNA databases have been expanding, and rapidly improving technology is poised to generate

more detailed profiles more quickly. The question now is what the future will look like, particularly in

the wake of the Court"s decision.

What DNA Samples Reveal

DNA databases help catch criminals, supporters say. And not just any criminals: because the

majority of genetic evidence is collected in homicide and rape cases, the databases are particularly

useful in identifying people who have committed violent crimes.

To get a DNA sample"whether from an arrestee or a convicted criminal"law enforcement officers

swab the inside of a suspect"s cheek. They then send the swab, now coated in DNA, to one of more than

200 public and private labs that analyze samples for the Federal Bureau of Investigation"s Combined

DNA Index System (CODIS), which catalogs these genetic profiles at the local, state, and national level.

The labs don"t read the full genome of each convict"s or arrestee"s DNA; in fact, they don"t analyze any

actual genes to include in the database, none of the stretches of DNA that code for health risks or visible

traits. They look at 13 locations, called loci, on each of two sets of chromosomes in what"s commonly

called "junk DNA," or bits of the chromosome that

don"t code for anything in particular. Each DNA

profile is made up of 26 data points.

Law enforcement organizations typically collect DNA

from arrestees using cheek swabs.

Since DNA profiles can be prepared quickly and

their data can be stored indefinitely, DNA

databases can pinpoint the perpetrator of recent

or ongoing crimes as well as help solve decades-

old cold cases. Taking DNA at arrest also prevents future crimes, proponents say, by linking repeat

offenders to past crimes and thus taking them off the street.

The Supreme Court"s recent ruling "was an excellent opinion and it was an important case for public

safety given the public safety benefits of arrestee databases," says California deputy attorney general

Enid Camps, who frequently handles the state"s DNA cases. Taking DNA samples from arrestees, she

says, is "more important than taking samples after they"ve been convicted, because it helps put

objective science earlier in the criminal justice system, not just at the end."

Like a Fingerprint"or Not

One of the primary concerns with adding arrestees to DNA databases is how much information

the samples could reveal. Proponents say the profiles are similar to mug shots and fingerprinting. In fact,

the technique is often called "genetic fingerprinting." In terms of how much information they divulge

about a person, "they"re effectively just like a fingerprint," says John Butler, a forensic genetics

researcher at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. They"re sufficiently different from

person to person, but they don"t tell you what that person looks like or where they"re from.

But unlike fingerprints, DNA is inherited in a far more consistent way. It shows who"s related to

whom"something a standard fingerprint could never reveal. California, Colorado, Virgina, and Texas

are using that to their advantage, employing a technique called familial search. Law enforcement

agencies turn to familial search when a crime scene sample only contains a partial match. That partial

match may point investigators to that person"s father, brother, son, or another close relative, giving

them new leads where there otherwise may be none. (Most familial searches use data points on the Y

chromosome, which only men have.)

The Supreme Court ruling noted that Maryland"s law forbids familial search, though that

particular part of the law hasn"t been tested yet. Still, the technique has been used in recent high-profile

cases, such as the Boston Strangler and Grim Sleeper murders. As databases expand to include more

arrestees, familial search will become a more pressing issue.

Life of a Sample

Even if the profile itself reveals relatively little information, many people are concerned that

most jurisdictions keep an individual"s sample"which contains their full genome and all the personal

information it could reveal"after their profile has been entered into the database. If a person is

exonerated, they can have their profile deleted and their sample discarded, though the process can be

difficult. Most labs keep the samples reportedly for the purpose of quality assurance testing in case of a

match, says John Butler, a forensic genetics researcher at the National Institute for Standards and

Technology: If an individual profile matches a crime scene profile, the sample will be retested to make

sure the match is correct.

Retaining samples also allow the labs to update their technology. When DNA profiling switched over to

the current method, labs retyped old, stored samples to create a more modern database. Such a

switchover may happen again soon: a working group formed by the FBI recommended that CODIS begin

testing additional loci, upping the number from 13 to 20 to reduce the likelihood of false positives.

Existing samples will have to be retested. Keeping samples also provides databases with updated

profiles of people who might have passed away, been paroled, or who would simply take precious law

enforcement resources to track down, Butler points out.

The FBI is a major force behind the expansion

of DNA databases.

That doesn"t sit well with Michael Risher,

an attorney at the ACLU of Northern

California. "The government insists not

just on keeping DNA profiles they"ve

developed, but on keeping the sample

indefinitely," he says. "There"s no

question that our DNA contains a huge

amount of info about us and that science

is learning to access that info more and

more every passing year."

California deputy attorney general Michael Chamberlain argues that keeping the full sample

ensures quality, saying it helps make the databases more effective and prevent potential false hits. In

terms of privacy, "people say the state has all this personal information, but we do not process it," he

says. "I"d hope the ACLU would come into court if we looked at personal genetic information, but that"s

never happened, and cannot happen under the law."

While the government is limited by law to conducting only those tests needed to obtain a

profile, laws can change, Risher says, and government officials can violate laws that exist. If the

government doesn"t need our full genetic information, he says, why should they keep it? Risher views

DNA as another piece of personal information, like emails. "We don"t think government officials can

come collect every email we ever sent and say, "No worries, we"re not going to read these emails unless

we get a court order.""

Expanding Scope

With more than half the states taking samples from arrestees, DNA databases have grown

rapidly. At the national level, CODIS has more than 10.1 million offender DNA profiles and 1.3 million

arrestee DNA profiles as of January 2013. Together, that"s over 3.5% of the U.S. population. According to



DNA testing is the latest fad to hit the health market. Companies like Navigenics are selling test kits that will supposedly tell you if you have increased risks for developing a number of diseases like Alzheimer"s, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration and many more. From there, you can make the appropriate lifestyle changes that will bring your risk back down. Sounds great doesn"t it? Well not so fast, there are real problems with this type of testing.

First off, say you have a 20% greater risk for developing Multiple Sclerosis that the average person. That would make you concerned right? Well, according to this article from, that only would lift your risk from .3% to .5% (3 out of every 1,000 versus 5 out of every 1,000, respectively). This is inconsequential yet the lab highlighted it which would cause unwanted concern for most lay people who are not geneticists or statisticians.

Secondly, do we really understand what all the genetic variants mean? Does one abnormality really increase the risk for developing a disease or is it really a combination of interactions that is most important? It is my belief, which is backed by a lot of research and the opinions of a lot of people in the field, that we are truly in the infancy of genetic testing and that claiming that a genes configuration means that you are more likely to develop a disease. We don"t fully fathom all the subtle nuances that make up our genes.

Next problem lies in those supposed markers that might indicate you have a lowered risk of developing a disease. Do you then not concern yourself with the possibility of getting sick? Lifestyle and environmental causes of disease are far, far more likely to cause a disease than a supposedly abnormal gene would.

Another problem I have is when you use the myopic line of thinking that if you have a gene that increases your risk of developing a disease and turning it off is definitely a good thing. Do we know that by turning off the gene we aren"t increasing the risk of developing another more deadly disease? We don"t.

Here is an extreme example of this problem. People with sickle cell anemia, a life-shortening disease actually protects the person with the genetic disorder from malaria. Think of living in equatorial Africa with the high levels of malaria. Many children would have died without the sickle cell protective gene. There are literally thousands of other examples, many we are not sure of.

In the case of breast cancer, having the bad gene is one thing, but prophylacticaly removing ones breast is an extreme case of acting on the bad gene news. Environmental and lifestyle choices such as depressed vitamin D, exposure to toxins, smoking, and alcohol intake vastly increases your risk of developing the disease, more so than the gene. If you choose to do these things, do you remove your breasts to reduce the risk of developing the disease? Of course not. Having the gene increases your risk but working to increase your vitamin D3 level, avoiding toxic exposure and detoxing regularly, not smoking and reducing or eliminating your alcohol intake would be more beneficial and would actually lower the risk to those women with the gene.

In a nutshell, lifestyle choices have a greater impact on overall health than genetics. This is the concept of metabolomics, but that is a whole other blog.
Debate Round No. 1


Within every person, somewhere among the approximately three billion DNA base pairs, hidden in the alleles and single nucleotide polymorphisms, is the information that defines much of an individual"s physical appearance. This DNA-determined appearance, or phenotype, is what creates family resemblance and, in the words of geneticist Richard Spritz, is "what your grandmother is responding to when she says you look like your father." Efforts by geneticists to find the pieces of DNA that determine what a human face looks like"everything from the shape of the nose to the spacing between the eyes"have intensified in recent years, and progress has been made. Scientists can now, with some certainty, use a strand of DNA to identify an individual"s likely hair and eye color, as well as skin pigmentation and ancestry. Penn State University geneticist Mark Shriver has made what he describes as the "first effort at generating facial composites from DNA" with "preliminary but certainly promising results."

Creating a "photo" image of an individual"s face from strands of DNA is of enormous interest to forensic investigators. A physical portrait of a suspect might be developed from DNA left at the scene when there were no eyewitnesses to the crime. In the aftermath of fires or other catastrophic events, DNA from unidentifiable bodies could make them recognizable to family members. In addition, DNA from a bone fragment could help visualize and identify individuals in mass graves. Although most geneticists stress the limits of phenotype research, police and forensic investigators can already turn to a handful of private companies that claim they are able to use DNA to accurately predict an individual"s physical appearance. So, what is the state of the phenotype research? Can a forensic investigator realistically expect to get an accurate image of an individual from a piece of DNA?

"We are not even at the end of the beginning," said Spritz, who has spent six years trying to identify and understand what determines the appearance of a human face. Spritz, the program director of the University of Colorado"s Human Medical and Genetics Program, is one of several DNA phenotype researchers receiving support from the National Institute of Justice. Although geneticists are cautious about overselling the progress toward creating an accurate physical image of an individual from DNA, there is a general agreement that the understanding of the underpinnings of phenotypes has moved forward significantly in the past decade. Scientists can now use DNA to determine, with more than about 75 percent probability, an individual"s ancestry, eye and hair color.

Much of the ancestry work is being done by Yale University geneticist Kenneth Kidd, who has developed a panel of 55 "ancestry informative single nucleotide polymorphisms" (AISNPs), which divide people into eight geographical regions, such as Europe, East Asia, and the Pacific. DNA from a bone fragment found in Vietnam, for example, can be screened against the AISNPs panel to determine if the person was from Southeast Asia or North America. If that person was an African-American, however, the results would come back as Ethiopian because that is a mix of European and African genes. Kidd is expanding the AISNPs panel to include more geographical regions. Identifying an individual"s ancestry is a piece in the genetic puzzle that determines what that person looks like, and it is an important part of the broader effort to accurately portray a specific face from DNA. Despite the progress he is making, Kidd said he still has a long way to go. "With the sort of research I"m doing," he said, "I"ll never be finished."

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More than just "brown vs. blue"

At a research lab at Indiana University"Purdue University Indianapolis, geneticist Susan Walsh is working to refine DNA phenotyping to predict quantitative color"or the precise color of eyes, hair and skin. Earlier work by Walsh and others identified the single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, that drive pigmentation. "That is the categorical identification," she said, "brown versus blue eyes, blonde versus brown hair. Our goal now is real color definition, like the RGB value on Adobe Photoshop." What inspired her effort to identify real color from DNA was a request from molecular geneticist Turi King to determine the eye and hair color of Richard III, whose remains were found under a parking lot in Leicester, England, in 2012. King, who used mitochondrial DNA to confirm the remains were Richard III"s, turned to Walsh to determine which of the portraits of the king"all painted after he was killed in battle in 1485"was the most accurate. Based on Walsh"s phenotype analysis, King determined that one of the earliest paintings of Richard III, the 1510 "Arched Framed Portrait," best matched the genetic information.

"We were still dealing with categories [of color] because we"re not at the quantitative level yet," Walsh said of her determination of Richard III"s hair and eye color. "[King] wanted something physical to see, and that"s what spurred me to move toward the quantitative so strongly. Because I could always say to someone, "blue" or "blonde," and they would say, "I need to see this physically." So that is what I"m working on now. I want to produce that result." Walsh has gathered DNA phenotype data from 2,000 Irish, Greek and U.S. individuals and is currently collecting data from 3,000 additional individuals from those same countries in order to create a phenotype-genotype database and prediction model. For forensic purposes, she would like to be able to start with a "blank person" and with a sample of DNA, determine the actual eye, hair and skin pigmentation.

In his Colorado lab, Spritz has been using "landmarking" to try to identify and understand the complex interactions of the genes that determine facial structure. He has used 29 facial landmarks standardized in the field as a way to correlate facial structures to genes, but he is currently moving toward a new approach. Spritz suspects that the landmark methods used in much of the facial work are not the "proper way to be thinking about facial shape because none of them have really panned out." The previous work involving linear measurement between landmarks didn"t work. So, his new approach is to focus on landmarks that have the highest genetic component of heritability. "That is where we"ll start from," Spritz said. "We have our fingers really tightly crossed that that will look better."

Spritz noted that genetics is only part of what determines the appearance of a human face. "Environment and chance play big roles," he said, although exactly how much influence they have is unclear. However, "the progressively smaller role the genes play, then the less you are going to be able to ever theoretically put everything together to make a photograph of what a person looks like."

Shriver, who has sparred with Spritz in the journal PLOS Genetics over the feasibility of predicting a facial shape and appearance, said understanding every genetic detail, biological step and mechanism is not necessary to predict what a face will look like. "You don"t need to understand the mechanism to make predictions, to derive a statistical pattern," Shriver said. "It is a mistake to argue that is it is too complex of a process for us to understand. The body understands it. There are all of these complex interactions, and they are read by the body. Is there something special about it that means we won"t be able to figure it out?"

Shriver noted that when humans look at one another, they are subconsciously reading genes that are the result of eons of natural selection. The face is "representative of the genetic differences between populations, and we think this is because the face played an important role in the evolution of our species," he said.

"We interact with each other based on our faces, and natural selection determined whether we think this is an attractive face, or not. We look for faces similar to ourselves . . . and we look at the dominance of a face, whether the person looks tougher than me. These sorts of things have driven the evolution of the face at a rapid pace, so those genes have experienced accelerated evolution."

Regardless of the focus and approach of the geneticists in their DNA phenotype research, the pursuit of the genetic underpinnings of the human face remains a daunting task. "There are some genetics that are relatively simple, like a disease," Spritz said. "There are some that are intermediate, like a person"s height, and some that are unimaginably complex, like determining your facial shape and features."


matthewz17 forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 2


Genetic researchers have recently begun to develop a type of DNA-typing that can identify criminal suspects based on traits such as skin, hair, and eye color, geographical ancestry, gait, and predisposition to smoking. Such visual and behavioral characteristics are part of an individual"s phenotype, the expression of his or her genes. Thus, we refer to this technology as forensic DNA phenotyping (FDP), although it is also known as phenotypic profiling, molecular photofitting, visual trait prediction, or ethnic inference.

FDP differs from traditional DNA-typing in many regards. Traditional DNA-typing does not reveal personal information. Instead, it determines whether two samples (one from the crime scene"the unknown or evidence sample"and the other from the suspect"called the reference sample) are from the same person. If the samples match, police assume that the suspect is the perpetrator. But this technology is of little use if police don"t have a suspect.

FDP seeks to get past this limitation by using the DNA left at a crime scene to create a genetically-based description of the unknown suspect"s appearance that police can use to narrow their search for suspects. Unlike traditional DNA-typing, which confirms a suspect"s identity, FDP predicts the suspect"s appearance. Researchers anticipate it could one day even predict a suspect"s behavior, such the likelihood of smoking. Currently, FDP relies on limited research that identifies gene sequences associated with distinctive features such as red hair or the part of the world a person"s ancestors came from. Genetic identification of ancestry causes particular concern because of its potential to exacerbate tensions in police relationships with racial and immigrant minority groups.


matthewz17 forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3
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