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DNA Tools Being Devised to Determine Physical Appearance

Susan Walsh

Susan Walsh (Indiana University – Purdue University in Indianapolis)

15 January 2015. A genetics professor in Indiana is developing forensics techniques to determine physical appearance characteristics of people from samples of their DNA. The work of Susan Walsh, in the biology department at Indiana University – Purdue University in Indianapolis is funded by a $1.1 million grant from National Institute of Justice, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Walsh and colleagues at IUPUI aim to design methods for connecting the composition of an individual’s DNA to physical traits for understanding a person’s visible appearance. These techniques, known as forensic DNA phenotyping, are being developed to reveal hair, skin, or eye color from genetic samples, particularly for identifying previously unknown persons.

“Predicting quantitative color — not just blue or brown but the precise shade or pigment — in terms of eye, hair or skin color of an unknown individual,” says Walsh in a university statement, “provides law enforcement, archaeologists, and other investigators with information that can help identify a specific person or determine a potential pool of suspects that may or may not be of interest.”

Forensic DNA phenotyping differs from traditional DNA profiling, in that profiling requires a reference DNA sample accessible to investigators to match against the specimen being tested. Where an individual has no previous sample on file, however, DNA profiling cannot help identify a suspect or victim, or exclude a suspect from an investigation. “These new tools will help investigators that lack genetic clues,” Walsh adds.

Walsh is co-developer of HIrisPlex, a set of online reference tools for DNA phenotyping hosted by Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, where she earned her doctorate. Those tools were used in a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications that identified the remains of King Richard III of England, who died in 1485, but whose remains were found in 2012. Walsh is a co-author of that paper.

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