Imagine being the victim of a sexual assault or rape and never finding out who did it, all because the DNA from the crime scene didn't match a suspect.
A group of professors at Penn State are taking the lead to give police a new weapon in the fight: a description based on available DNA.
They call it Next Generation Sequencing.
"That allows us to sequence targeted areas of the DNA molecule to try to get information from them that might give us some indication of ethnicity, eye color, hair color," Dr. Jennifer Smith, of the Forensic Science Department at Penn State, said.
It may sound complicated, but Dr. Smith said it could make a big difference.
Normally at any crime scene, investigators will take samples of items left behind and try to find anything that may have possible samples of DNA.
Sometimes though, Smith said that DNA may not match a suspect.
"This now allows us to go and ask us another question of that stain," she said. "What did the person look like that left it? What might be their ancestry?"
They're hoping to get those answers from a machine. For example, in sexual assault cases, rape kits are usually performed on a victim to try and identify DNA of his or her attacker. Now, there is a backlog, nationwide, of kits still needing to be tested.
Smith said this research provides incentive to move that testing along.
"Now, they should be able to get all this information from the stain at one time," she said. "I think it also helps them prioritize. If you didn't have a suspect in a case, sometimes you don't work that kit as quickly."
"DNA is critical," Anne Ard, Executive Director of the Centre County Women's Resource Center, said. "It's important when someone says I didn't do it, I wasn't there."
Ard sees cases like that all the time. She said most times, victims of sexual violence know who attacked them, but not always.
"For victims of sexual assault, often, it's not about who the perpetrator is or identifying the perpetrator, it's about being believed," she said. "It's about having a jury believe what you tell them happened, really did."
Another battle in the coming years for this research will be funding. This machine costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The research is still in the validation testing phase. Smith anticipates it could be less than five years before labs take this new technology on.
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