IUPUI researchers working with DNA to change the way crimes are solved

(WTHR file photo)
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Down a hallway on the third floor of IUPUI's Science and Engineering Building, it's a brave new world where researchers are busy collecting DNA samples from volunteers.

"Do you agree to give a saliva and hair sample," an assistant asks a man sitting in a chair.

When he agrees, she hands him a plastic tube and says, "the next step would be for you to spit into this."

The researchers' goal is to build a database of enough genetic code so that someday all investigators will need is a little DNA at a crime scene and they'll be able to plug the genetic code extracted from it into a computer and have a picture of their suspect.

"Saliva, blood, semen, anything at all," Assistant Professor of Biology Doctor Susan Walsh at IUPUI explains. "We eventually want to be able to tell just from your DNA, exactly your facial structure, exact pigment, exact height, weight, left hand, right hand. Everything that we can tell from genetics, we want to be able to push into that printout."

Walsh and her team of researchers are working on a three-year research study that will go towards producing a software with that kind of technology.

"This is 'Gattaca' in the making," says Walsh.

Right now, technology exists to give investigators a person's hair and eye color based on DNA.

"You're looking at someone's genes, right here and the codes at certain points of their genes," says Walsh as she points to a picture on a computer screen. "Every single peak is telling me information about the DNA. Based on the genetic code of our input, we will generate a prediction and that's currently how hair and eye color prediction works right now."

"While you're spitting into that container, I'm going to take a couple hairs from your head," the researcher says to a volunteer.

The study needs more DNA, their goal is to collect at least 5,000 samples from willing volunteers who sign up for the study.

"You will be put into a database and you will help us make our tools better and, in the end, we could help research push forward and basically create the tool that you think is science fiction, but it's actually not," she says.

Crime solving tools of the future are right around the corner.

"I would say 10-20 years time," says Walsh. "It's not science fiction anymore."

More about the DNA study