News & Politics

DNA Databases from Ancestry.com, 23andMe Help to Solve Decades-Old Cases

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Police across the country are finding new ways to solve unsolved murder cases using DNA. While obtaining DNA directly from suspects has been used successfully in the past, crimes are now being solved with the help of investigators using the popular genealogical sites such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe.

A tiny company, Parabon Nanolabs, of Reston, Va., and its researcher, CeCe Moore, have begun to combine high-tech DNA analysis, traditional genealogical work, and the online ancestry databases to solve a number of old cases. Moore told NBC News, “I never expected that my work would lead to.”

A spokesman for Parabon noted that the company has been able to find DNA matches in about 60 percent of the cases it pursues by using the online databases. While the criminal might not be in one of these databases, often a distant relative is found, which leads to finding the criminal. The key has been how Parabon developed algorithms that can identify individuals using the DNA they share with distant relatives. It’s able to extract sufficient data to identify relatives at the second-cousin level and closer. Essentially, Parabon makes use of the databases created by the genealogical sites that never expected their products would be used in this way.

In one case, reported by NBC, authorities in Fort Wayne, Ind., had the DNA of the man who murdered 8-year-old April Tinsley in April 1988.

For the past thirty years, authorities had been unable to find him. The police followed many leads over the years to no avail. They used FBI profilers and even went on “America’s Most Wanted” with no success.  Three years ago they sent genetic material to Parabon, where they produced a computer-generated sketch of what the killer might look like today. Still nothing.

Then the company called back, offering to perform a new type of DNA testing that went beyond the traditional biometric match that the police normally use. The company narrowed the number of suspects to two brothers, one of whom confessed. This is the fifth cold case solved by Parabon and their researcher since May.

Moore told NBC News. “I predict we will see dozens or hundreds of cold cases resolved over the next couple of years.” Currently just 12 states are using this service.