The Extraordinary Promise Of Next Generation DNA Sequencing

The Human Identification Solutions Conference organized by Life Technologies in Madrid at the beginning of March highlighted the new capabilities made possible by Next Generation DNA Sequencing (also known as Massively Parallel Sequencing). With Next Gen techniques, the cost of sequencing DNA in medical and academic work has been slashed and progress is being made toward routine accessibility and widespread use within three to five years.

Conference presentations covered the development of new genetic “marker” systems for human identification, and their incorporation in robust, commercially available tests. Using modifications to standard DNA profiling methods, new systems for quantification and typing of DNA permit many more loci to be tested simultaneously, with even higher levels of sensitivity on trace or degraded samples. DNA “lineage markers” such as mitochondrial DNA (which follow maternal lineages) and the Y-chromosome (which follows paternal lineages) were discussed, with, among other things, attention given to new levels of resolution (including for the Y-chromosome the potential to distinguish between closely related males, such as brothers).   Rapid development was also highlighted in DNA’s potential as an investigatory tool for predicting externally visible traits of unknown individuals, such as eye and hair color, bio-geographic origin, and even age.

ICMP Director of Forensic Science Thomas Parsons was one of the prominent scientists who participated at the Madrid conference. He explored the challenges of adapting unprecedentedly powerful DNA-led techniques to forensic applications in human identification, a field experiencing extremely rapid development.

In his presentation, Dr. Parsons outlined the profound impact that DNA methods have had on the identification of missing persons, and he drew attention to ICMP’s constant refinement of technical DNA methods and electronic databases, and its successful integration of DNA in multi-disciplinary identification systems and social outreach programs. ICMP’s interdisciplinary approach has enabled as many as 20,000 DNA-supported identifications since 2001.

Dr. Parsons emphasized that DNA can serve as the backbone for massive identifications when it is applied in concert with institutions operating according to clearly defined roles, broad social engagement, multiple scientific disciplines, and appropriate and effective data protection.

He concluded by noting that ICMP has a consistent record of applying technical innovation as it becomes available, which means that its relationship with Life Technologies and other partners has been more than a straightforward connection between supplier and customer – it has involved a shared and continuously evolving awareness of scientific possibility and practical need.