Thursday, August 6, 2015

Is DNA profiling worth the effort?byDr George Thomas, Dr Sanil George

Is DNA profiling worth the effort?

byDr George Thomas, Dr Sanil George

Is DNA profiling worth the effort?

The Union government will need all the financial and technical backing to implement the Human DNA Profiling Bill that was introduced in Parliament with an aim to collect the DNA copy of everyone in the country. However, it is debatable if the returns are worth such a massive investment.

No one can dispute the fact that a national DNA databank will help tracking criminals and identifying accident death victims. Each individual has a unique DNA model, except for identical twins. The chances of finding the same DNA model in two persons are only one in a lakh crore cases.

DNA fingerprinting is used to track the perpetrators of a crime. The test is done on the serums found from the scene of crime. If this matches the DNA profile of a suspect in the case, courts accept this as additional evidence.

Collecting serums for DNA tests is a very specialised job that requires the utmost care. In most cases, however, the investigating officer gives it the least importance. Sleuths decide to collect samples after days of the incident in most of the cases. This leads to an incomplete DNA modelling.

Relying on DNA models to identify a criminal is not a fool-proof method. Not because DNA tests are unscientific, but due to the ignorance or carelessness in collecting the samples. The only way to ensure accurate results is to train investigating officers in handling such cases. Nowhere in India, do we have such a mechanism.

DNA profiling can also help find missing people and identify the bodies of people killed in natural calamities and accidents.

Collecting the DNA copies of every citizen of India will cost the government at least Rs 6 lakh crore. This does not take into account the cost of storing the data for years. The storage also requires the service of so many scientists and technicians.

When we spend so much money and manpower, we have to make sure the rewards are in proportion to the investment. Just the existence of a national DNA databank cannot prevent the incidence of crime.

If the government could collect a DNA databank of people convicted of criminal offences, it could help law enforcement agencies ascertain if they have been involved in any crime after they have served the prison sentence. But India's Evidence Act does not permit DNA test results as evidence to find a person guilty. Courts allow DNA tests only as supplementary evidence to other evidence.

There is not much weight in the argument about a potential misuse of information in a DNA databank. This issue is not a concern for science. This depends on the people who handle it.

It is not right to project DNA profiling as an encroachment to individual freedom and human rights. The governments already collect so much personal data in many forms. DNA profiling should be viewed as just the latest version of such activities.

(The writers are scientists at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology in Thiruvananthapuram)

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