FBI’s DNA database upgrade plans come under fire

By Paul Rincon
Science editor, BBC News website
Oct, 16, 2011

A major upgrade of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) DNA database system has come under fire from members of the forensic science community.

The Codis system is used to generate the genetic profiles stored in the US national DNA database.

The FBI wants to expand the number of genetic markers used by Codis to classify individual DNA profiles.

But a former science chief at the bureau says the plan is not being driven by scientists’ needs.

Dr Bruce Budowle, along with colleagues Arthur Eisenberg and Jianye Ge, outlined the objections at the Promega 22nd International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) in Maryland, US.

Another scientist told BBC News the changes were vitally important because they would set down how DNA profiles were recorded in the United States for perhaps “the next 20 years”.

While working at the FBI in the 1990s, Dr Budowle helped choose the genetic markers currently used by Codis.

Consultation gap

He says the review is a good idea, but that choosing the right markers for forensic casework is crucial.

He told BBC News the FBI did not sufficiently consult with the forensic science community before making its recommendations.

“The first time around we took a community-wide approach – 21 laboratories rolling up their sleeves and generating data we could analyse and [use to] make decisions,” explained Dr Budowle, from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

“This time around, they formed a working group of around five [scientists] and an FBI person to decide what the core set should be.

“Should the needs of Codis – our national database system – drive the casework processes, or should the needs of casework drive the Codis processes?

“I would hope the latter is obviously what should be done.”

High profile

The US national database – the largest in the world – currently contains about 10 million offender profiles and has assisted in more than 141,000 investigations.

Codis (which stands for COmbined DNA Index System ) uses a set of 13 genetic markers – known as the “core loci” – to generate individual DNA profiles.

In May 2010, the FBI established a six-strong working group to review the core loci used for database searches. It has now recommended the current set of 13 markers be increased to 24.

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