New DNA technology is bringing new hope to criminal cases that have gone cold.
Parabon Nanolabs is located just west of Washington D.C. It’s changing the game of forensics across the nation, even bringing help to cases here in Colorado Springs.
“We essentially come up with new ways to analyze forensic data,” said Dr. Ellen McRae Greytak, Director of Bioinfomatics at Parabon Nanolabs.
Traditional DNA analysis can match a sample to a suspect, but Greytak said DNA can do so much more.
“When we do DNA phenotyping we’re predicting the appearance of a person, and so that’s essentially having the DNA act as a genetic witness,” she said.
With an idea of what the suspect looks like, police then have a better idea of who they’re looking for, or at least who they are not.
“So for each trait that we predict, we give a level of confidence, and that’s based on thousands of predictions we’ve made on people with known appearance,” Greytak said. “And if we look at this new prediction from an unknown person and say ‘it looks a lot like the predictions we’ve seen from blue-eyed people, and we’ve never seen or very rarely seen a prediction like this from a brown-eyed person,’ we can tell investigators with high confidence the person doesn’t have brown eyes.”
Greytak said this information is especially useful in cases where there are no witnesses and no description of a potential suspect.
“Say you have 1,000 people who had access to the building where a crime happened,” Greytak said. “Without a way to prioritize among them, that’s a very long-running investigation.”
This technology was used in the cold case of Mary Lynn Renkle-Vialpando, a young woman who was brutally murdered on the west side of Colorado Springs in 1988.
While the composite didn’t directly lead to an arrest, Colorado Springs police said it was a valuable tool.
“It’s turning out that a lot of these cases that looked like there were no leads left, now there are,” Greytak said.
But Parabon Nanolabs is doing even more. In the last few months, they’ve also started offering genetic genealogy.
“That means trying to build family trees,” Greytak said.
Researchers take the suspect’s DNA and compare it to DNA that’s been uploaded into GEDmatch, a free online database that compares DNA from any genetic testing company.
“There are a number of different genetic testing companies,” Greytak said. “There’s 23 and Me, there’s Ancestry.com, Family Tree DNA, etc., and basically they each have their own database. So you can choose to download your DNA from the company you tested with and upload it to GEDmatch and then you can compare to people who are tested in all the different companies.”
Once Parabon finds a match, they start old-fashioned digging.
“So, first you’re taking John Smith and looking for his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, this is all just using public records,” Greytak said. “We know that John Smith isn’t our person, he’s a distant relative of our person. We’re finding a third cousin in that database, and it’s then building family trees and trying to figure out who are all the third cousins of this person? Were there any of them that were in the right place at the right time, who were the right age, who had the right phenotypes? All of that and trying to figure out who this person could have been, and we’ve been extraordinarily successful.”
Genetic genealogy made headlines earlier this year when it was used to identify the “Golden State Killer,” a man suspected in more than a dozen murders and more than 50 rapes.
“It’s the most incredible feeling in the world when we get that phone call from an agency saying, ‘We got a DNA match. We got him,'” Greytak said.
Greytak said as more people become interested in genealogy and upload their data to GEDmatch, there’s more information for Parabon to work with.
“Every new person who puts their data there accepts the terms of service that says law enforcement can search your sample and makes your sample publicly comparable,” Greytak said. “Every new person is a new chance to solve a case.”
Even if Parabon finds a match, law enforcement still needs to go through traditional testing to get a direct match between the crime scene DNA and the suspect’s DNA, but Parabon’s work can be crucial in obtaining a search warrant.
“You can’t change what happened, but at least you can bring a resolution,” Greytak said.
Right now, the cost for a genetic genealogy analysis is about $5,000. Results typically take around 45 business days.