Phylogenetic forensics advances but doesn’t give courts a smoking gun

Virus Final
Illustration by Katie Scott via Nature

Juries might soon be hearing about the genetic path of infections and diseases as evidence in court cases. The process of analyzing and categorizing viral sequences, known as phylogenetic forensics, is explored in a recent article in Nature. Although exciting developments have been made, this style of forensics doesn’t give courts the sort of nearly indisputable evidence that DNA does.

The intersection of this science with the legal system makes many uneasy, says Anne-Mieke Vandamme, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Leuven in Belgium, who has worked on 19 criminal cases since 2002, mostly for the defence. Unlike DNA evidence, which is routinely used in legal settings around the world, the results of phylogenetic forensics are rarely definitive. “You can never prove guilt,” she says.

One of the challenges was differentiating the process from conventional DNA testing in minds of the judges and lawyers. Court officials needed to understand that the analysis is inherently more messy: because HCV mutates so rapidly, the longer a person has an infection, the more viral diversity they are likely to have.

This emerging field has been tested in the courts already: in the trial of an anesthetist in Spain who was accused of infecting patients with hepatitis C in 2007 and a man in Louisiana who injected his former girlfriend with HIV-and HCV tainted blood in 1998.

But when lives are in the balance scientists continue to proceed with caution. Testing phylogenetic forensics procedures is made all the more complicated when microorganisms are evolving almost as fast as the technology.

Read the full original article: Science in court: Disease detectives

Outbreak
Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
can you boost your immune system to prevent coronavirus spread x

Video: How to boost your immune system to guard against COVID and other illnesses

Scientists have recently developed ways to measure your immune age. Fortunately, it turns out your immune age can go down ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...
favicon

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend