Thursday, April 3, 2008

DNA fingerprinting methods

DNA fingerprinting begins by extracting DNA from the cells in a sample of blood, saliva, semen, or other appropriate fluid or tissue.

RFLP analysis

The first methods used for DNA fingerprinting involved restriction enzyme digestion, followed by Southern blot analysis. Although polymorphisms can exist in the restriction enzyme cleavage sites, more commonly the enzymes and DNA probes were used to analyze VNTR loci. However, the Southern blot technique is laborious, and requires large amounts of undegraded sample DNA. Also, Jeffreys' original technique looked at many minisatellite loci at the same time, increasing the observed variablitiy, but making it hard to discern individual alleles (and thereby precluding parental testing). These early techniques have been supplanted by PCR-based assays.

PCR analysis

With the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), DNA fingerprinting took huge strides forward in both discriminating power and the ability to recover information from very small (or degraded) starting samples. PCR greatly amplifies the amounts of a specific region of DNA, using oligonucleotide primers and a thermostable DNA polymerase. Early assays such as the HLA-DQ alpha reverse dot blot strips grew to be very popular due to their ease of use, and the speed with which a result could be obtained. However they were not as discriminating as RFLP. It was also difficult to determine a DNA profile for mixed samples, such as a vaginal swab from a sexual assault victim.

Fortunately, the PCR method is readily adaptable for analyzing VNTR loci. In the U.S.A the FBI has standardized a set of 13 VNTR assays for DNA typing, and has organized the CODIS database for forensic identification in criminal cases. Similar assays and databases have been set up in other countries. Also, commercial kits are available that analyze Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). These kits use PCR to amplify specific regions with known variations and hybridize them to probes anchored on cards, which results in a colored spot corresponding to the particular sequence variation.

STR analysis

Main article: Short tandem repeats

The most prevalent method of DNA fingerprinting used today is based on PCR and uses short tandem repeats (STR). This method uses highly polymorphic regions that have short repeated sequences of DNA (the most common is 4 bases repeated, but there are other lengths in use, including 3 and 5 bases). Because different people have different numbers of repeat units, these regions of DNA can be used to discriminate between individuals. These STR loci (locations) are targeted with sequence-specific primers and are amplified using PCR. The DNA fragments that result are then separated and detected using electrophoresis. There are two common methods of separation and detection, capillary electrophoresis (CE) and gel electrophoresis.

The polymorphisms displayed at each STR region are by themselves very common, typically each polymorphism will be shared by around 5 - 20% of individuals. When looking at multiple loci, it is the unique combinations of these polymorphisms to an individual that makes this method discriminating as an identification tool. The more STR regions that are tested in an individual the more discriminating the test becomes.

From country to country different STR based DNA profiling systems are in use. In North America systems which amplify the CODIS 13 core loci are almost universal, while in the UK the SGM+ system, which is compatible with The National DNA Database in use. Whichever system is used, many of the STR regions under test are the same. These DNA profiling systems are based around multiplex reactions, whereby many STR regions will be under test at the same time.

Capillary electrophoresis works by electrokinetically (movement through the application of an electric field) injecting the DNA fragments into a thin glass tube (the capillary) filled with polymer. The DNA is pulled through the tube by the application of an electric field, separating the fragments such that the smaller fragments travel faster through the capillary. The fragments are then detected using fluorescent dyes that were attached to the primers used in PCR. This allows multiple fragments to be amplified and run simultaneously, something known as multiplexing. Sizes are assigned using labeled DNA size standards that are added to each sample, and the number of repeats are determined by comparing the size to an allelic ladder, a sample that contains all of the common possible repeat sizes. Although this method is expensive, larger capacity machines with higher throughput are being used to lower the cost/sample and reduce backlogs that exist in many government crime facilities.

Gel electrophoresis acts using similar principles as CE, but instead of using a capillary, a large polyacrylamide gel is used to separate the DNA fragments. An electric field is applied, as in CE, but instead of running all of the samples by a detector, the smallest fragments are run close to the bottom of the gel and the entire gel is scanned into a computer. This produces an image showing all of the bands corresponding to different repeat sizes and the allelic ladder. This approach does not require the use of size standards, since the allelic ladder is run alongside the samples and serves this purpose. Visualization can either be through the use of fluorescently tagged dyes in the primers or by silver staining the gel prior to scanning. Although it is cost effective and can be rather high throughput, silver staining kits for STRs are being discontinued. In addition, many labs are phasing out gels in favor of CE as the cost of machines becomes more manageable.

The true power of STR analysis is in its statistical power of discrimination. In the U.S.A., there are 13 core loci (DNA locations) that are currently used for discrimination in CODIS. Because these loci are independently assorted (having a certain number of repeats at one locus doesn't change the likelihood of having any number of repeats at any other locus), the product rule for probabilities can be applied. This means that if someone has the DNA type of ABC, where the three loci were independent, we can say that the probability of having that DNA type is the probability of having type A times the probability of having type B times the probability of having type C. This has resulted in the ability to generate match probabilities of 1 in a quintillion (1 with 18 zeros after it) or more.


Another technique, AmpFLP, or amplified fragment length polymorphism was also put into practice during the early 1990s. This technique was also faster than RFLP analysis and used PCR to amplify DNA samples. It relied on variable number tandem repeat (VNTR) polymorphisms to distinguish various alleles, which were separated on a polyacrylamide gel using an allelic ladder (as opposed to a molecular weight ladder). Bands could be visualized by silver staining the gel. One popular locus for fingerprinting was the D1S80 locus. As with all PCR based methods, highly degraded DNA or very small amounts of DNA may cause allelic dropout (causing a mistake in thinking a heterozygote is a homozygote) or other stochastic effects. In addition, because the analysis is done on a gel, very high number repeats may bunch together at the top of the gel, making it difficult to resolve. AmpFLP analysis can be highly automated, and allows for easy creation of phylogenetic trees based on comparing individual samples of DNA. Due to its relatively low cost and ease of set-up and operation, AmpFLP remains popular in lower income countries.

Y-chromosome analysis

Recent innovations have included the creation of primers targeting polymorphic regions on the Y-chromosome (Y-STR), which allows resolution of multiple male profiles, or cases in which a differential extraction is not possible. Y-chromosomes are paternally inherited, so Y-STR analysis can help in the identification of paternally related males. Y-STR analysis was performed in the Sally Hemings controversy to determine if Thomas Jefferson had sired a son with one of his slaves.

Mitochondrial analysis

Main article: Mitochondrial DNA

For highly degraded samples, it is sometimes impossible to get a complete profile of the 13 CODIS STRs. In these situations, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is sometimes typed due to there being many copies of mtDNA in a cell, while there may only be 1-2 copies of the nuclear DNA. Forensic scientists amplify the HV1 and HV2 regions of the mtDNA, then sequence each region and compare single nucleotide differences to a reference. Because mtDNA is maternally inherited, directly linked maternal relatives can be used as match references, such as one's maternal grandmother's sister's son. A difference of two or more nucleotides is generally considered to be an exclusion. Heteroplasmy and poly-C differences may throw off straight sequence comparisons, so some expertise on the part of the analyst is required. mtDNA is useful in determining unclear identities, such as those of missing persons when a maternally linked relative can be found. mtDNA testing was used in determining that Anna Anderson was not the Russian princess she had claimed to be, Anastasia Romanov.

mtDNA can be obtained from such material as hair shafts and old bones/teeth.

National DNA databases

The United States maintains the largest DNA database in the world: The Combined DNA Index System, with over 4.5 million records as of 2007. The United Kingdom maintains the National DNA Database (NDNAD), which is of similar size. The size of this database, and its rate of growth, is giving concern to civil liberties groups in the UKSDLF, where police have wide-ranging powers to take samples and retain them even in the event of acquittal.[1]

The U.S. Patriot Act of the United States provides a means for the U.S. government to get DNA samples from other countires if they are either a division of , or a head office of, a a company operating in the U.S.A. Under the act, the American offices of the compnay can't divulge to their subsidiaries/offices in other countries the reasons that these dna samples are sought or by whom

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