A Canberra forensic laboratory will be the first in Australia to test the ancestry of crime scene DNA, opening up a world of potentially predicting a suspect’s eye or skin colour.

The University of Canberra secured funding last month to bring its forensic laboratory up to the standards required for accreditation and hopes to offer the service to police from 2017.

Forensic genetics expert Dr Dennis McNevin said rather than searching for a DNA match, the technology could provide investigators with a molecular photo fit of the suspect.

“If you get a match that’s all well and good, but if you don’t get a match then traditionally that’s a dead end,” he said.

“However, now we’re in a position where we can get some more information from that DNA.

“We don’t need to match it to anything.

“We can tell what the DNA donor may have looked like, their genetic ancestry, their hair colour, their eye colour, those kinds of things.”

Proceed with caution

Dr McNevin, however, said the technology should be approached with caution.

“If you have ancestors from different parts of the world then that will show up as a mixture of DNA [and] that mixture can be interpreted in many different ways,” he said.

“It’s not always easy to pick out the different contributions from the different corners of the world because in that mixture it might look like the DNA has come from a part of the world that is itself a mixture of different ancestry.

“For example, the Middle East is a crossroads of civilisations, there have been many civilisations that have risen and fallen in that area, so the genetic traces of those civilisations have been left behind.

“Untangling that mixture can be difficult and a DNA profile that looks Middle Eastern or Central Asian could in fact be the result of a person who has ancestors from other parts of the world that are geographically or genetically remote from that region.”

But Dr McNevin defended the technology, saying it could offer an alternative to eyewitness testimony which he said was “notoriously unreliable”.

“Sure, you have to interpret with caution, offer the possibility that this is what the person could look like [and] provide all the caveats that underlie that prediction,” he said.

“But certainly the same risk is applied to an eyewitness account.

“In fact, I would argue that a molecular photo fit has potential to be more accurate.”