What is DNA Fingerprinting ?
The chemical structure of everyone's DNA is the same. The only difference between people (or any animal) is the order of the base pairs. There are so many millions of base pairs in each person's DNA that every person has a different sequence.
Using these sequences, every person could be identified solely by the sequence of their base pairs. However, because there are so many millions of base pairs, the task would be very time-consuming. Instead, scientists are able to use a shorter method, because of repeating patterns in DNA.
These patterns do not, however, give an individual "fingerprint," but they are able to determine whether two DNA samples are from the same person, related people, or non-related people. Scientists use a small number of sequences of DNA that are known to vary among individuals a great deal, and analyze those to get a certain probability of a match.
Practical Applications of DNA Fingerprinting
1. Paternity and Maternity
Because a person inherits his or her VNTRs from his or her parents, VNTR patterns can be used to establish paternity and maternity. The patterns are so specific that a parental VNTR pattern can be reconstructed even if only the children's VNTR patterns are known (the more children produced, the more reliable the reconstruction). Parent-child VNTR pattern analysis has been used to solve standard father-identification cases as well as more complicated cases of confirming legal nationality and, in instances of adoption, biological parenthood.
2. Criminal Identification and Forensics
DNA isolated from blood, hair, skin cells, or other genetic evidence left at the scene of a crime can be compared, through VNTR patterns, with the DNA of a criminal suspect to determine guilt or innocence. VNTR patterns are also useful in establishing the identity of a homicide victim, either from DNA found as evidence or from the body itself.
3. Personal Identification
The notion of using DNA fingerprints as a sort of genetic bar code to identify individuals has been discussed, but this is not likely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. The technology required to isolate, keep on file, and then analyze millions of very specified VNTR patterns is both expensive and impractical. Social security numbers, picture ID, and other more mundane methods are much more likely to remain the prevalent ways to establish personal identification.
Problems With DNA Fingerprinting
Like nearly everything else in the scientific world, nothing about DNA fingerprinting is 100% assured. The term DNA fingerprint is, in one sense, a misnomer: it implies that, like a fingerprint, the VNTR pattern for a given person is utterly and completely unique to that person. Actually, all that a VNTR pattern can do is present a probability that the person in question is indeed the person to whom the VNTR pattern (of the child, the criminal evidence, or whatever else) belongs. Given, that probability might be 1 in 20 billion, which would indicate that the person can be reasonably matched with the DNA fingerprint; then again, that probability might only be 1 in 20, leaving a large amount of doubt regarding the specific identity of the VNTR pattern's owner.
1. Generating a High Probability
The probability of a DNA fingerprint belonging to a specific person needs to be reasonably high--especially in criminal cases, where the association helps establish a suspect's guilt or innocence. Using certain rare VNTRs or combinations of VNTRs to create the VNTR pattern increases the probability that the two DNA samples do indeed match (as opposed to look alike, but not actually come from the same person) or correlate (in the case of parents and children).
2. Problems with Determining Probability
A. Population Genetics
VNTRs, because they are results of genetic inheritance, are not distributed evenly across all of human population. A given VNTR cannot, therefore, have a stable probability of occurrence; it will vary depending on an individual's genetic background. The difference in probabilities is particularly visible across racial lines. Some VNTRs that occur very frequently among Hispanics will occur very rarely among Caucasians or African-Americans. Currently, not enough is known about the VNTR frequency distributions among ethnic groups to determine accurate probabilities for individuals within those groups; the heterogeneous genetic composition of interracial individuals, who are growing in number, presents an entirely new set of questions. Further experimentation in this area, known as population genetics, has been surrounded with and hindered by controversy, because the idea of identifying people through genetic anomalies along racial lines comes alarmingly close to the eugenics and ethnic purification movements of the recent past, and, some argue, could provide a scientific basis for racial discrimination.
B. Technical Difficulties
Errors in the hybridization and probing process must also be figured into the probability, and often the idea of error is simply not acceptable. Most people will agree that an innocent person should not be sent to jail, a guilty person allowed to walk free, or a biological mother denied her legal right to custody of her children, simply because a lab technician did not conduct an experiment accurately. When the DNA sample available is minuscule, this is an important consideration, because there is not much room for error, especially if the analysis of the DNA sample involves amplification of the sample (creating a much larger sample of genetically identical DNA from what little material is available), because if the wrong DNA is amplified (i.e. a skin cell from the lab technician) the consequences can be profoundly detrimental. Until recently, the standards for determining DNA fingerprinting matches, and for laboratory security and accuracy which would minimize error, were neither stringent nor universally codified, causing a great deal of public outcry.
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