Reopening cold cases: The new tools revolutionizing DNA crime detection

Puzzle solvers by nature, genealogists tie the loose ends of a person’s familial tapestry for answers… It’s an emerging practice that pairs genealogical research with genetic data – typically gleaned from direct-to-consumer DNA-testing companies – to help identify victims (and sometimes suspects) in criminal cases. The DNA Doe Project is focused on identifying deceased individuals: there are around 40,000 “Does” in the US, possibly more.

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Law enforcement agencies and medical examiners submit their cold Doe cases directly to the DNA Doe Project, and donations sometimes help cover the cost. The process works as follows: DNA from the Doe is extracted by a lab and then sequenced, often at another location. This may take several attempts due to the quantity, contamination, degradation or previous mistreatment of the DNA. A bioinformaticist then bridges the gap between the lab results and the GEDmatch upload, running sequencing data that can reach hundreds of gigabytes through an algorithm to produce roughly 13 megabytes of data suitable for upload. Once uploaded to GEDmatch, volunteers look for matches and begin populating an extensive family tree, possibly numbering thousands of distant relatives, using existing trees and documents.

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The DNA Doe Project started with 12 or so remote volunteers but has since grown to between 60 to 70 dotted around the US and internationally, with hundreds on the waiting list.

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