Similar to how every individual has a unique fingerprint, they too possess unique DNA markers. The use of these DNA markers to identify specific individuals is known as DNA fingerprinting. Like any other scientific breakthrough, this technique too has its pros and cons.
Phantom of Heilbronn
A female serial killer was thought to be responsible for over 40 murder cases from 1993 to 2009, based on the DNA evidence at the crime scene. However, later investigations revealed that these cases were not linked, and that the cotton swabs used to collect evidence were themselves contaminated.
In 1984, Sir Alec Jeffreys, a British geneticist, developed a technique called DNA fingerprinting, that analyzes DNA patterns to identify individuals. This technique is also termed as DNA profiling, DNA typing, and genetic testing. Although it analyzes DNA sequences, it is not similar to gene mapping or gene sequencing. Gene mapping refers to the identification of the location of a gene or set of genes on a DNA molecule, and gene sequencing refers to acquiring the complete nucleotide sequence of the gene, whereas DNA fingerprinting deals with the analysis of DNA patterns obtained after processing DNA molecules. The DNA pattern is unique to each individual, and hence is suitable for identifying individuals.
Advantages of DNA Fingerprinting
▣ DNA can be obtained from any biological sample such as semen, saliva, blood, skin, or hair. This makes it versatile and non-invasive.
▣ Sample size does not matter, as the genetic material can be amplified.
▣ DNA samples can be stored for a long time, hence they are easily accessible for analysis.
▣ It can be used to establish paternity of an individual or to trace one’s genealogical ancestry.
▣ It can be used to determine the risk factors for hereditary diseases.
▣ This technique is employed by law enforcement agencies to identify the criminal from suspects, based on the biological evidence obtained at the crime scene. It can also be used to prove the innocence of a wrongly accused person.
▣ Most law enforcement agencies maintain a database of all the DNA fingerprints of known criminals, so as to try to identify criminals based on the biological evidence left behind by the perpetrator.
Disadvantages of DNA Fingerprinting
▣ Errors in performing the technique or improper handling of the sample may produce incorrect results.
▣ The incorrect interpretation of the results may lead to a wrongful conviction.
▣ Sample obtained from crime scenes at public areas are prone to human error.
▣ There is the possibility of false-positive and false-negative results.
▣ The results offer a statistical probability and not an absolute value.
▣ Improper collection and storage of samples would lead to their disintegration, which in turn would yield faulty results.
▣ DNA information could be misused to discriminate against an individual based on their race, ethnicity, origin, or health risks.
▣ Requests for genetic information, can also be viewed as an invasion of privacy and civil liberties.
▣ Violation of Privacy: Once a suspect’s DNA is obtained during a criminal investigation, it may be stored in the agency’s database with or without their consent. These databanks could be hacked into and modified to wrongly implicate the individual in a crime. The ease with which DNA can be obtained without consent from various biological samples left on objects used in daily life aids in the violation of a person’s privacy.
▣ Ethnic Targeting: If people of a particular ethnicity are arrested more often than other ethnic groups, the databases will reflect a higher genetic pool for that group. Since genetic matching yields a statistical probability and not exact matches, the chances of increased or wrongful arrests in that group would amplify.
▣ Discrimination Based on Gender: People who are born as hermaphrodites, or who have undergone a gender change surgery, may be discriminated against for possessing their particular genetic makeup.
▣ Discrimination Based on Health Risks: People with high risk of a certain genetic disorder may be denied health insurance or employment due to their health concerns.
▣ Eugenics: An extreme ethical violation of civil rights would be the propagation of eugenics, which implies allowing the proliferation of only that set of people whose genetic material would aid in improving the genetic quality of the human population.
DNA fingerprinting is found to be beneficial as well as detrimental when one considers all of its ethical implications. This makes it imperative for people to educate themselves about the risks and concerns regarding the use and misuse of genetic information, and to make an informed decision when requested to provide biological samples. It also falls on government agencies to restrict access to the established databases, and to protect them from any malicious threats.