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Forensic Science

Genetic Fingerprints

The nuclei within our cells contain coiled, thread-like bodies called chromosomes. Chromosomes are paired, one member of each pair came from your father; the other one from your mother. Chromosomes are made of deoxyribonucleic acid, often called DNA. It is DNA that carries the "blueprint" (genes) from which "building orders" are obtained to direct the growth, maintenance, and activities that go on within our bodies.

Except for identical twins, no two people have the same DNA. However, we all belong to the same species; consequently, large strands of DNA are the same in all of us. The segments that are different among us are often referred to as junk DNA by biologists. It is these unique strands of DNA that are used by forensic scientists. Strands of DNA can be extracted from cells and "cut" into shorter sections using enzymes. Through chemical techniques involving electrophoresis, radioactive DNA, and x rays, a characteristic pattern can be establishedthe so-called genetic fingerprint. Because different people have different junk DNA, the prints obtained from different people will vary considerably; however, two samples from the same person will be identical. If there is a match between DNA extracted from semen found on the body of a rape victim and the DNA obtained from a rape suspect's blood, the match is very convincing evidence-evidence that may well lead to a conviction or possibly a confession.

Although genetic fingerprinting can provide incriminating evidence, DNA analysis is not always possible because the amount of DNA extracted may not be sufficient for testing. Furthermore, there has been considerable controversy about the use of DNA, the statistical nature of the evidence it offers, and the validity of the testing.

Genetic fingerprinting is not limited to DNA obtained from humans. In Arizona, a homicide detective found two seed pods from a paloverde tree in the bed of a pickup truck owned by a man accused of murdering a young woman and disposing of her body. The accused man admitted giving the woman a ride in his truck but denied ever having been near the factory where her body was found. The detective, after noting a scrape on a paloverde tree near the factory, surmised that it was caused by the accused man's truck. Using RAPD (Randomly Amplified Polymorphic DNA) markers—a technique developed by Du Pont scientists—forensic scientists were able to show that the seed pods found in the truck must have come from the scraped tree at the factory.

DNA analysis is a relatively new tool for forensic scientists, but already it has been used to free a number of people who were unjustly sent to prison for crimes that genetic fingerprinting has shown they could not have committed. Despite its success in freeing victims who were unfairly convicted, many defense lawyers claim prosecutors have overestimated the value of DNA testing in identifying defendants. They argue that because analysis of DNA molecules involves only a fraction of the DNA, a match does not establish guilt, only a probability of guilt. They also contend that there is a lack of quality control standards among laboratories, most of them private, where DNA testing is conducted. Lack of such controls, they argue, leads to so many errors in testing as to invalidate any statistical evidence. Many law officials argue that DNA analysis can provide probabilities that establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt.


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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ferroelectric materials to Form and matterForensic Science - History, Fingerprints, Genetic Fingerprints, Evidence And Tools Used In Forensic Science