Problems With DNA Fingerprinting

Like nearly everything else in the scientific world, nothing about DNA fingerprinting is 100% assured. The term DNA fingerprint is, in one sense, a misnomer: it implies that, like a fingerprint, the VNTR pattern for a given person is utterly and completely unique to that person. Actually, all that a VNTR pattern can do is present a probability that the person in question is indeed the person to whom the VNTR pattern (of the child, the criminal evidence, or whatever else) belongs. Given, that probability might be 1 in 20 billion, which would indicate that the person can be reasonably matched with the DNA fingerprint; then again, that probability might only be 1 in 20, leaving a large amount of doubt regarding the specific identity of the VNTR pattern's owner.

1. Generating a High Probability
The probability of a DNA fingerprint belonging to a specific person needs to be reasonably high--especially in criminal cases, where the association helps establish a suspect's guilt or innocence. Using certain rare VNTRs or combinations of VNTRs to create the VNTR pattern increases the probability that the two DNA samples do indeed match (as opposed to look alike, but not actually come from the same person) or correlate (in the case of parents and children).

2. Problems with Determining Probability

A. Population Genetics
VNTRs, because they are results of genetic inheritance, are not distributed evenly across all of human population. A given VNTR cannot, therefore, have a stable probability of occurrence; it will vary depending on an individual's genetic background. The difference in probabilities is particularly visible across racial lines. Some VNTRs that occur very frequently among Hispanics will occur very rarely among Caucasians or African-Americans. Currently, not enough is known about the VNTR frequency distributions among ethnic groups to determine accurate probabilities for individuals within those groups; the heterogeneous genetic composition of interracial individuals, who are growing in number, presents an entirely new set of questions. Further experimentation in this area, known as population genetics, has been surrounded with and hindered by controversy, because the idea of identifying people through genetic anomalies along racial lines comes alarmingly close to the eugenics and ethnic purification movements of the recent past, and, some argue, could provide a scientific basis for racial discrimination.

B. Technical Difficulties
Errors in the hybridization and probing process must also be figured into the probability, and often the idea of error is simply not acceptable. Most people will agree that an innocent person should not be sent to jail, a guilty person allowed to walk free, or a biological mother denied her legal right to custody of her children, simply because a lab technician did not conduct an experiment accurately. When the DNA sample available is minuscule, this is an important consideration, because there is not much room for error, especially if the analysis of the DNA sample involves amplification of the sample (creating a much larger sample of genetically identical DNA from what little material is available), because if the wrong DNA is amplified (i.e. a skin cell from the lab technician) the consequences can be profoundly detrimental. Until recently, the standards for determining DNA fingerprinting matches, and for laboratory security and accuracy which would minimize error, were neither stringent nor universally codified, causing a great deal of public outcry.

NEXT TOPIC: Suggested further reading