American Heritage on DNA

Thanks to Bill at DQ I now subscribe to American Heritage Invention and Technology. It’s a quarterly techie magazine, with various articles, some brief some lengthy, on all manner of interesting technologies. The latest issue has a 10-page or so article on the history of DNA profiling. All of you that watch crime shows like CSI or Law and Order (and the 29,531 shows that came from it) have likely seen some coverage of DNA profiling. But if you aren’t a scientist in the field, there is a great chance you don’t really know much about it. You can’t learn everything that matters, but the history of testing, as well as some information on how and why testing works are covered in the story.

Since I subscribe, I get the stories on paper. You, lucky reader of my awesome site, get instead a pointer to the publically accessible online reprint of the article. It will take a while to read, but if you have an interest in geeky pursuits like I do, you’ll enjoy every bit of it. Hell, there’s even mention of the DNA testing from the OJ Simpson trial and why it was ultimately not highly influential in rendering a guilty verdict. That’s pop culture AND science/technology all in one little story. So you get education while being entertained. This ain’t no American Idol, where you just get entertainment (for values of “you” not including me, since I find the show grotesquely idiotic). So go now – read and learn.

In July 1986 residents of the english village of Narborough learned that someone had raped and murdered a 15-year-old schoolgirl named Dawn Ashworth. It was a second shock for the bucolic community, which lies about a hundred miles north of London. An equally harrowing crime had rattled the area less than three years earlier. Late in 1983 a passerby had found the violated body of Lynda Mann, also 15. News of the latest atrocity frightened and outraged local citizens and left police desperate.

Authorities focused their investigation on a slow-witted hospital porter of 17, who, under intense interrogation, confessed to killing Ashworth. He denied any involvement in Mann’s killing, but prosecutors were convinced he was lying. They needed to link him conclusively to both crimes.

. . .

When he [Ed note: Dr. Alec Jeffreys – the creator of the DNA testing method used] analyzed several of the variable sections, he was able to point with virtual certainty to a single individual. Yet at the end of his rigorous lab work, he thought he must have made a mistake.

“My first reaction was ‘Oh my God, there is something wrong with the technology,'” he said later. His test showed that one man had indeed raped both girls. But, in spite of his confession, the youth in custody was not the culprit.

[tags]American Heritage Invention and Technology magazine, DNA profiling, The hows and whys of DNA testing[/tags]