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Blue DNA

Battelle Applied Genomics Today

September 2015 - Issue 2

The Lab Meets the Street and It’s a Game Changer

Five years of research and testing of next-generation sequencing technology have brought us to where law enforcement can draw important conclusions from the analysis of a single unmatched DNA sample. Now Battelle has married that technology with computer software technology to move our knowledge to the streets and give law enforcement a game-changing tool, Battelle ExactID®.

The advanced capability of ExactID is one reason that, in January, the Defense Forensic Science Center (formerly the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory or USACIL), purchased ExactID for their investigative unit. The Army will soon be joined in its use of Exact ID by other law enforcement agencies. 

Exact ID is also part of a 19-month research study of next-generation sequencing technology now underway in seven labs across the country, part of an $825,000 National Institute of Justice grant.

In this study, Battelle, the world’s largest independent research and development non-profit, will work with some of the nation’s leading forensics labs to develop performance evaluation criteria. DNA samples provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will then be analyzed by the labs. 

Testing will include new instruments, chemical compounds or mixtures and software that analyzes biomarkers that can predict physical appearance, ancestry, clinical traits and familial relationships among people. This information can be invaluable to forensic analyses and casework, but is not currently approved for use by law enforcement. 

An explosion of genetic research since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 has uncovered thousands of biomarkers that can be applied to DNA-based forensics. Next generation sequencing takes this work to a new level, yielding significantly more information than current DNA testing.

Battelle is pursuing new algorithmic approaches that minimize the use of parameter variables that unnecessarily complicate the analysis. The approach also involves leveraging prior information to narrow the problem space. For example, if we know in advance the specific genetic loci of forensic interest, we can optimize the algorithms for those loci. Additionally, many forensic genomics sequencing workflows only sequence specific portions of the genome in the first place. Again, this is prior information that can be leveraged. Answering these kinds of domain-specific questions is much more straightforward and efficient than answering more general and unconstrained questions of interest, for example in cancer research.

The Battelle approach facilitates directly reporting the forensic genotypes of the targeted loci, with a minimum amount of user interpretation. Together, affordable MPS and approachable bioinformatics opens the doors to deep exploitation of DNA for the forensic analyst.

The embrace of ExactID by the Army investigation unit is an important step for ExactID, underscoring its credibility and success.