Amateur sleuths turn to DNA tests

September 8, 1995

Gene testing is being used for all sorts of applications, reports Rifat Malik. When scientists developed DNA testing they could not have envisaged its myriad of uses. It can now trace ancestors through the centuries and solve some of the mysteries that have long dogged historians. But some of its many applications, especially when sold on the high street, are raising important ethical questions.

Amateur historian Jack Leslau has persuaded the genetics department of the University of Louvain, Belgium to carry out DNA testing to validate his cherished theory that the Princes in the Tower were not cruelly butchered by Richard III but escaped to live fruitful lives.

Perhaps the greatest historical puzzle was the fate of the Romanov royal family during the Russian revolution. The world's first national database, the Home Office's Forensic Science Service, was approached by the Russian Federation's Forensic Institute to carry out DNA testing to help solve the problem. The research was headed by Peter Gill, who says: "This was important because it was a historical and criminal investigation, and I suppose it does open up a new field. But we will always be constrained by the material we have and the need for living relatives."

Plans are now being made for the bones of the Romanov family to be given a fitting funeral in Russia after further DNA tests in the United States had finally convinced the Russian Orthodox Church that they were genuine. All the victims have now been identified, except for haemophiliac Tsarevich, Alexei, and a daughter.

Mike Bruford, head of the Conservation Genetics Group at London Zoo, specialises in DNA research to preserve endangered species and to establish the paternity of wild animals all over the world. He says that people feel no inhibitions in ringing in with strange requests. "We get a surprisingly large number of calls from the public which is fine, as part of our remit is public education. But we also have people regularly posting their cat's hair because they are convinced it is the beast of Bodmin. I'm not saying there is no beast, but I am saying they are just cat hairs. The testing costs vast amounts of money, so I have to be a little parsimonious about agreeing to requests."

Richard Nichols, of Queen Mary and Westfield College's biological sciences department, has made a reputation for himself by challenging the forensic use of DNA evidence, and acting for defence teams because he believes the tests are not extensive enough. He recalls a case where a couple insisted on DNA testing to prove the breed of their dog. "Although it was possible that it was a Pit Bull, the chances that it hailed from a Staffordshire Bull Terrier and was not a Pit Bull Terrier were only 200 to 1, so luckily they won their case."

Robert Hedges, an archaeological scientist at Oxford University, says that amateur archaeologists are not always to be ignored as some serious ideas can sound extreme, but admits: "Reliability is not a word I'd use at all in this field, especially when testing the DNA of ancient human bones. The risk of contamination is very high."

The antithesis of this form of research is using DNA in the commercial sector, which is exemplified by the work of University Diagnostics Limited, set up by University College London seven years ago. It offers paternity, immigration and medical DNA diagnostics at a price. Managing director, Paul Debenham says that the firm is now going into veterinary DNA testing, and has just become the first company to offer DNA testing for the Pig Stress syndrome. "The leanness of their meat has an important association with pig genes, and as supermarkets are prepared to pay extra for better and fresher meat, so are breeders."

UDL also offers people the chance to find out about hereditary medical diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, and recently had a strong response after advertising in Cosmopolitan magazine. But this is where troublesome questions of eugenics and ethics pop up. Robin Jenkins of the Genetics Forum Bulletin accepts the forensic use of DNA, and finds its value in rewriting history fascinating, but says that its commercial use in probing medical histories is worrying. "There are serious moral implications here. People are not psychologically prepared for this kind of information, so money is being made out of exploiting people's fears. It will produce a dangerous degree of fatalism."

Screening and addressing the lack of public awareness about the possible uses of DNA testing could soon be solved. The EC has been concerned enough to give Maurice Super, head of clinical genetics at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, a Pounds 300,000 grant to open a "gene shop" on the high street.

Dr Super wants such genetic information centres to be set up around the country. This may well mean more DNA testing in the future, and once people appreciate the potential of this biotechnology, the subjects of testing can only get more outlandish.

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