How DNA analysis helps to solve crimes and who can sell your DNA data and why: Interview with former FBI scientist Bruce Budowle

April 20, 2024  11:19

Normal DNA testing in a laboratory could take weeks before they actually provide a result. But in the movies, they put it in a machine and immediately you have all the answers. There are machines that can speed up the process, you know, like rapid DNA. But the routine work takes longer.

Before there was DNA, they uses what we call protein markers, like the ABO blood group. These were not very practical markers, though, because the ABO blood group is found in blood, but you're not going to find it on a skin cell or a hair or something like that. DNA is in every tissue of the body. If you left blood behind or someone left saliva or semen or some tissue behind, all of those can be compared. If you arrest somebody, you're not going to get a semen sample from the person as a sample, you can take any viable tissue and compare it to the evidence.

Traditionally, we needed what's called a first degree relative that's either a parent to a child or a sibling. Today, though, we can type people that are six, seven, eight generations away, we can find a relationship between the fifth cousin and the remains.

In your blood, your red blood cells don't contain any DNA. They have no nucleus. It's the white blood cells, the lymphocytes that are in the blood that we're actually getting the DNA from. 

We developed a different DNA test for hair almost 30 years ago, now called mitochondrial DNA, which is another type of DNA that you have in your cells. The mitochondria are known as the powerhouse of the cell. And they have their own little DNA molecules in them. So for hairs we couldn't get the traditional DNA because there's not a lot in there. There's not cellular DNA in the hair. It's just degraded.

I have been involved in many difficult cases when I worked at the FBI. I was the one who was the lead to develop the DNA program for the FBI, bring it on to operation and help build the database. I'm also the one that had to go in and defend it in the courtroom for its legitimate use. So I was involved in lots of different cases. And then after I left the FBI, I ran a lab in Texas, and we had lots of cases. 

DNA isn't the only thing that says this guy committed a crime or this person didn't commit a crime, it’s a part of the puzzle. Sometimes it's stronger evidence, sometimes it's corroborative evidence, but it's all part of it. 

In fact, we did a study on a bone that was 170 years old, and we got a full DNA profile from that. It was just really good DNA. 

We were involved in helping on analyze some bones in Cyprus after the war between the Turks and the Cypriots. These were from the 1960s. And the military had maintained them, but they sprayed them with something, some chemical on a regular basis. So these bones were blanched white. We could get no DNA out of those, they were chemically treated, we don't know what the chemicals were, but we could not recover anything. 

Some companies that perform genetic tests for people who want to trace their ancestry have actually sold those DNA data and made hundreds of millions of dollars off them.

Bruce Budowle

Bruce Budowle recently retired as Director of the Center for Human Identification and as a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, Texas, where his efforts focused on the areas of human forensic identification, microbial forensics, and emerging infectious disease with substantial emphasis in genomics and next generation sequencing. Prior to these appointments he was employed for 26 years at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Laboratory Division where he was involved in the research, development, and validation of numerous DNA methods.

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