Photo by Illumina Inc.

Illumina Inc. has developed a technology that could transform the work done by crime scene investigators, helping to solve cold cases by uncovering the information hidden in degraded DNA.

For the past several decades, DNA testing has been helpful, but underutilized. Crime labs currently use a technology that involves slicing DNA into strands and analyzing small areas known to differ among individuals.

Investigators compare patterns in the strands with possible suspects, looking for a puzzle-piece match.

Although these distinctive patterns might help differentiate one suspect from another, the technology doesn’t offer descriptive details about the person in question — details such as a specific physical feature that may be useful to law enforcement. Once the DNA from the sample is sliced multiple times, it becomes degraded and is no longer useful for further testing.

“There are times when you have very little material to work with — lipstick on a cigarette butt or a strand of hair,” said Kirk Malloy, senior vice president and general manager of Illumina’s life science business. “With this very small amount of material, you might have to do a lot of different experiments. And if you don’t have enough sample, you could get an imprecise result.”

The New Sketch Artist

With Illumina’s new machine, the MiSeq FGx, researchers not only can glean information from smaller or degraded samples, they can get specific details about the person’s genetic makeup.

“Because we’re actually sequencing the DNA itself, we know things like hair color, eye color and ancestry,” Malloy said. “So we can determine if the sample is from a person of European or Asian ancestry, for example.”

This information can be extremely useful to law enforcement for finding persons of interest, or narrowing a suspect pool in ongoing investigations. It also can be critical in cases involving missing persons or unidentifiable human remains in mass disaster situations.

The ‘Trials’

While Illumina’s new sequencing machine may be highly useful in crime labs, it takes time to change the status quo where evidence matters most — the court room.

“This kind of technology must go through evaluations for several months,” Malloy said. “And there has to be court cases where they use our technology to generate admissible evidence.”

The issue is not so much the use of the MiSeq FGx in particular but rather the use of next-generation sequencing in general.

An unusual pending court case in Suffolk County, Mass., involving identical twins could be the first instance in which next-generation sequencing is used to determine evidence.