DNA stories decoded

DNA stories decoded

Forensic expert will explain the science at Teaneck shul program

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection chemist reads a DNA profile. (James Tourtellotte/Common domain via Wikipedia)
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection chemist reads a DNA profile. (James Tourtellotte/Common domain via Wikipedia)

Who are you, really? Where did your grandparents and great- grandparents and their grandparents and great-grandparents come from? Are you the descendant of the ethnic group you’ve been told you belong to? Are there any surprises lurking there? Any suspicions confirmed or shot down?

Do you have more relatives than you thought you had? Can you meet them? Can they tell you more about your family? Can they help you fill in your family tree?

That’s the lure of the genetic testing programs that have become nearly ubiquitous. Just spit into a container — okay, spit a lot into a container — okay okay, just conquer your distaste and spit a lot into a container — send it off (of course with money) to 23&Me or Ancestry.com or some other similar service, and wait to be told where (most likely) your ancestors came from, who (most likely) are your relatives, and what (most likely) your personal characteristics include.

That saliva, of course, contains DNA, the code that connect us to each other.

But the newly accessible, increasingly affordable science of genetics and the study of DNA isn’t confined to finding long-lost relatives. It’s also an increasingly powerful forensic tool, useful not only in solving new crimes but also in closing cold cases.

David Fisher of Teaneck, who spent 17 years as a forensic biologist at the New York City chief medical examiner’s office and now is the program director for the brand-new undergraduate forensic science degree at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, will talk about his field at his own synagogue, Beth Aaron. (See box.)

Mr. Fisher is excited about the growth in his field; because it’s so new, he’s been able to watch it grow. “The technology really has developed so fast,” he said. Sometimes, DNA from old cases has been preserved; now it can be pulled out of the vaults where it’s been shelved and tested. “The sensitivity has gotten so much greater, the speed at which we can get DNA profiles and the overall technology has gotten so much better,” he said. That technology can be used not only to find criminals, but to “exonerate innocent people, who have been lingering in prisons for 20 to 30 years.”

He’s excited, too, about his own move from “the practitioner’s side to the academic side.” The undergraduates who take courses in his program will have an entirely new world of jobs open to them. “They can pretty much start at any entry-level position, working in a crime lab or as a crime scene investigator with law enforcement,” he said. “They also could go on to advanced degrees, in medical school or in law school or in dental school” — all fields in which forensics can play a big part — “or to just about any graduate school. There are many paths, depending on which way the student wants to go.”

The field of forensics has become very visible recently. “It has exploded,” Mr. Fisher said.

David Fisher

At Beth Aaron, Mr. Fisher plans to talk about how “people can research their own family trees, using traditional methods and archives, like census records and ships’ manifests. Now everything is available online; all you need is an internet connection and a keyboard.” The research necessary to fill in a family tree used to demand much time and a great deal of money. Now, not so much.

“People can decide to do a DNA test to investigate their family’s ancestry, both geographic and ethnic,” Mr. Fisher said. “Hopefully that will coincide with a family’s own oral history, and you can make connections with long-lost relatives, distant cousins who may — or may not — have the same last name as you, and share genetic material. They might live nearby or they might live in a foreign country.” DNA transcends national borders.

It is important to remember, however, that even science isn’t necessarily as precise as we would like it to be. “There’s not always a direct match,” Mr. Fisher said. “You have to know a little bit about statistics. It’s all based on probability, and on how close the matches are.” That’s why, for example, 23&Me and Ancestry.com can come up with different results for the same person’s saliva. Most of it is science, but some of it still is art.

Mr. Fisher also plans to talk a little bit about the Cohen gene, which is passed down the male line and is carried by many Jewish men who know themselves to be kohanim.

“And I also am going to talk about some criminal cases where genetic or forensic genealogy has been successful,” he said. Those are cases where detectives have been able to use genetic databases, including both official and commercial ones, to trace murderers by going up and then back down their family trees. Among the most well-known of those cases is the Golden State killer, solved last year “remarkably, by an amateur genealogist,” he said.

Mr. Fisher didn’t want to preview the cases he’ll discuss at Beth Aaron, but he mentioned a story that’s similar to the ones he will present. It’s the story of Michella Welch, who lived in Washington State and was raped and murdered in 1986, when she was 12 years old.

Police gathered DNA evidence in 1986; in 2006 investigators developed a DNA profile, and last year, using that DNA, traditional genealogical methods, the old witness statements, and always-updated DNA databases, police narrowed the suspects down to two brothers, and then were able to match one of the brothers definitively to the DNA he’d left behind more than 30 years earlier.

It did not bring Michella back to life, but it did allow her family at least to know what had happened, and that the person responsible would not have gotten away with the murder.

There are ethical, moral, and legal issues involved with DNA searches, Mr. Fisher said; a relatively feel-good story of a finally captured murdered does not wipe away all the privacy issues that such searches bring up. DNA searches also demand thinking about privacy when it comes to a person’s inherited tendency for diseases or life-altering or life–ending conditions.

“There are two schools of thought about that,” Mr. Fisher said. “There’s the one that says that if you have nothing to hide, why would you care? And on the other hand, the libertarian idea that the government has no business knowing my genetic information.”

Mr. Fisher looks forward to discussing those issues, telling more of those stories, and helping other people figure out how to discover their own stories, at Beth Aaron this week.

Who: David Fisher

What: Will talk about genetics and the science of DNA

Where: At Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck

When: Sunday, March 17, at 7 p.m.

For more information: Go to www.bethaaron.org

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