Undoubtedly, one of the great discoveries of the 20th Century was the double-helix and the whole understanding of genes and chromosomes. At the start of the 21st Century we saw – and continue to see – a greater understanding of how genetics works and, increasingly, the function of specific genes.
We are also hearing every day about new uses for genetic knowledge. Although research into genetically related disease is very topical, I am particularly interested in two other applications of genetics and the issues raised by their use …
The first of the two genetic technologies to grab my interest was “genetic fingerprinting” [the other will wait for another day]. The idea is simple enough: just like we all have unique fingerprint patterns, everyone’s DNA is different. So, if you have a sample of DNA from a crime scene and you have a suspect, you can look for a DNA match, which would give evidence to say that, at least, they had been at the crime site.
The comparison technique used is relatively simple. There is no attempt to match DNA material gene by gene. Instead the DNA is “profiled”, which entails locating a number of well-defined markers in the DNA which characterize it. This essentially yields a number which is unique to that DNA [at least, the chances of another, different DNA sample yielding the same number is astronomic]. So this process is applied to the sample gathered at the crime scene and to the suspect’s DNA. A match is bad news for the suspect.
There is much debate about the retention of DNA profiles gathered from individuals, particularly if they are shown to be innocent. It seems that people feel that their privacy/freedom is being infringed. I fail to see how this is the case. The DNA profile is just a number and, despite many fantastical press reports, cannot be used for any purpose other than matching a sample. I would be very willing to have the authorities keep my profile on file. That way, if a crime is committed and I am even slightly suspected, I can be eliminated without even being troubled by a phone call. As I have no plans to commit any crimes, what have I got to lose?
This could also be applied to immigration. Instead of taking my fingerprints [sometimes] when I enter the US [which I find slightly degrading for some reason], I think that I would find being asked to provide some DNA a bit more satisfying: “Welcome to the United States Mr. Walls. Sorry for the interminable wait in the immigration line after your 11 hour flight. Would you care to spit here please …”