Biological traces lead to truth after a thousand years

The Vavilov Institute of General Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences is developing a new project within the DNA Identification Union State programme

The Vavilov Institute of General Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences is developing a new project within the DNA Identification Union State programme. Criminalists of the Union State are eager to see the results of the five-year project, which is worth 3bn Russian Roubles.


DNA for geneticists is a depository of information

Svetlana Borinskaya, a Doctor of Biological Sciences and a chief research worker at the Institute’s Laboratory of Genome Analysis, tells us more:

Ms. Borinskaya, in recent times, ‘research’ appears to have repudiated the genetic relationship between our three Slavonic nations of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. According to these studies, Belarusians are related to Poles and Russians are Finno-Ugrians. What is your scientific opinion? 

Science is convinced that the Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian nations are genetically extremely close. Anthropologists and geneticists have conducted many studies, coming to similar conclusions. However, you’re right: information on this issue is being distorted — either for political reasons or some other. We’re surprised. Only an incompetent person could say that Russians are Finno-Ugrians (a linguistic classification rather than genetic). Molecular-genetic methods used to reconstruct our demographic history are similar to linguistic, but geneticists study DNA rather than languages.

How would you describe this Union State programme?

The project we’re working on envisages a fundamental scientific task: characterising the Belarusian and Russian genofond. Genetic research on the population began in the 1950-1960s in the Soviet Union. We can now analyse DNA as a routine laboratory procedure. Our institute has a collection of biological samples, representing each population of Russia and its neighbouring countries. Using these, we can investigate genofonds of local regions. The results of this analysis obviously find lots of applications in practice, such as assembling databases for use in investigating crimes, terrorist acts and catastrophes.

We know about identifying criminals by fingerprints. How does DNA profiling help?

If a criminal fails to leave fingerprints, what can we do? We need to search for biological traces: saliva, blood or sweat. We can identify anyone by their individual DNA; we only need a couple of cells — for example, of sweat, left on a handset. Moreover, DNA’s individual characteristics are preserved for centuries; with this in mind, the method is named DNA-dactylography. DNA analysis of substances can help detect whether a certain person has conducted a crime.

What is the state of the DNA database currently available to criminalists?

There are two types of database; DNA-profiles overseen by criminalists, used for criminals’ DNA-profiles (to track personality trends among repeat offenders); and population databases, which characterise the DNA of people residing in certain geographical areas. These help detect the region of a person’s origin — even if only a DNA sample is available.

So far, only scientists who’ve developed the method can use these databases, which are not yet full, failing to provide complete and detailed information on settlements. We need to work on this, to ensure that all regions are represented and that law enforcement bodies can independently use them. This is the key task of our Union State programme. 

We understand what’s missing and which Belarusian and Russian regions need to be studied. Moreover, the system under development will allow us to distinguish eternal features by DNA determination. In the coming five years, we plan to move to new DNA-identification technologies, meeting the global level of genome analysis. Probably, in this field, Russian and Belarusian technologies will lead. 


EXPERT OPINION

Vadim Stepanov, Doctor of Biological Sciences and the Deputy Director of the Scientific-Research Institute of Medical Genetics (responsible for scientific work): 

Studies of various ethnic groups have demonstrated that genetic characteristics reflect place of birth and residence, as well as ethnicity. Forensic medicine and criminalistics provide practical applications and we are developing new approaches to diagnostics using the data. If we can identify genetic markers for hereditary diseases, specific to certain population groups, we can take targeted preventative measures. New methods enable us to research the genofond of our modern generation by ‘extracting’ the DNA of our forefathers, comparing this with modern samples. We can determine which nations founded or followed a certain ancient culture. We can recreate a ‘map’ of movement across our planet through the centuries.


By Andrey Bushkovsky

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