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We're all suspects now Innocent or guilty, the police want to keep tabs on your DNA
AS A RULE, this magazine is not especially squeamish about cracking down on crime. We do not normally break out in a cold sweat every time we hear a civil liberties campaigner denounce this or that government policy on DNA fingerprinting as intrusive and unfair. But we do sit up and listen when the people sounding the alarm include top forensic experts, government advisers and the very scientist who invented DNA fingerprinting, Alec Jeffreys (see p 9). In fact, "alarm" is putting it mildly. Jeffreys and his friends are nothing less than outraged. The British government is just a hair's breadth from passing laws that will give the nation's bobbies the power to take DNA samples from innocent people and keep them indefinitely, along with computer profiles based on those samples. That, say the protestors, is a clear strike against justice and fairness. lt is hard to disagree.
Police in Britain already have the right to take (by force if necessary) DNA samples from anyone taken into custody, from murder suspects right down to the unlucky student suspected of smoking cannabis. The new laws will entitle the police to keep those samples and profiles on file even if the suspect turns out to be innocent. That should be unthinkable in any self-respecting democracy-and in most it is. Across Europe, mandatory DNA testing is restricted to people charged with serious offences, and all DNA records must be destroyed if a suspect is cleared or acquitted. In the US, even those arraigned on serial murder charges have the right to refuse to give a DNA sample. Indeed in some states, even convicted criminals are allowed to withhold their DNA.
That is pushing civil liberties too far. But equally, putting people with no convictions on a police database which exists solely to be trawled for links between suspects and crimes is pushing the interests of the state too far. What is particularly Big Brotherish about the British proposal is that even if you are eliminated from an inquiry you will not have the right to ask for your DNA records and saliva sample to be destroyed or given back. In effect, the sample-containing the very blueprint that makes you the person you are-will have become the property of the state. The authorities didn't need your consent to take it. They won't need your consent to keep it.
Not long ago, Britain was convulsed with emotional fury over the news that certain hospitals and pathologists had been retaining the organs and tissues of dead children without proper consent. And following the completion of the first draft of the human genome, there are increasing worries about the potential abuse of genetic information. So why the deafening silence now over the plan to keep thousands of DNA samples without consent?
Perhaps most people believe that the vast majority of suspects taken into custody must have done something wrong-even if the police cannot prove it in court-and that keeping their DNA records is therefore not only morally justified but will help catch them next time round. Well, no doubt some offenders do escape justice this way. But will keeping every acquitted suspect's DNA on file help catch them? Not as much as you might think. Astonishingly, up to 80,000 such DNA samples have been retained already in Britain, albeit illegally. Yet so far there seem to have been only a handful of publicly acknowledged matches between these DNA profiles and ones later found at crime scenes-hardly a huge advance in crime fighting.
What would help is for the police to take many more DNA samples from the scenes of crimes and process them more efficiently. Last year, a scathing Home Office report found huge variation in the proportion of crime scenes examined for DNA in different parts of the country. In one area, only half the samples collected were actually submitted for analysis. No doubt funding has something to do with this but the fact is that if you don't collect DNA from crime scenes you will not catch criminals, no matter how many saliva samples you take from people hauled into custody. Of course,,DNA fingerprinting is a powerful form of evidence which has helped convict tens of thousands of offenders. But we mustn't be blind to the need for checks and balances on how it is collected by the police and used in court. After all, the kind of totalitarian state George Orwell envisaged doesn't spring up overnight. It's more likely to creep into existence through the erosion of small freedoms and small rights to privacy.
lt is time for a bit of fury. And a full and open debate.
Genes and Women's Careers
WOMEN should forget their careers and stay at home having babies. That's not a chauvinistic male talking-it's what our genes are telling us, according to an international team of researchers. They have found that in industrialised societies, nature is selecting genes for behavioural traits that encourage women to have children earlier. Eventually, women's biological urge to have children could become so strong, it might override their desire to have a career.
The finding means humans are still evolving, because genes that boost the number of children an individual has will tend to increase in frequency with each generation. This goes against the prevailing view that human populations are genetically stable. "There is this assumption that because we are all living healthy, happy lives and we can have as many children as we want, then evolution must have come to a stop," says evolutionary biologist Christopher Wills of the University of California in San Diego.
Ian Owens from Imperial College in London and his colleagues used data about the lives of 2710 female twins in Australia to calculate the evolutionary 'fitness" of each woman-a measure of the number of descendants her lineage would leave. The number of children they had, and when they had them, were crucial to the calculation.
Cultural factors had a big impact on the women's fitness. More education reduced their fitness, whereas Catholicism increased it-but these factors couldn't explain everything. 'if you remove everything that's cultural, there's still an enormous difference between women, " says Owens. He estimates that 50 to 60 per cent of fitness is environmentally determined, but 40 to 50 per cent is genetic.
To find out which kinds of genes were inherited, the researchers looked for traits that affected fitness in identical twins, who have all their DNA in common, and non-identical twins, who on average share half of it.
Religion and education had virtually no genetic component. But in all social groups, there was a strong genetic influence on the age at which women had their first child. The earlier a woman had her first child, the fitter she was in evolutionary terms, as she has had more time to have more children.
The researchers say that the genes involved-probably determine psychological or behavioural traits that make women more likely to have children younger. "You'd think it was to do with your career, or what happens one particular evening," says Owens. "But genes affect behaviour and behaviour partly determines when you will have kids and -how many you will have."
'There's a fierce conflict between a career and wanting to reproduce,
To investigate further, the researchers looked at the results of personality tests that the twins took. Their unpublished results suggest that psychological traits such -as extroversion and neuroticism affected the 'fitness" score of women. And some "social attitude dimensions" such as family values and militarism boosted fitness. "These personality traits are about SO per cent heritable and could contribute quite a lot
of the genetic variance in fitness," says team leader Nick Martin of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane. Another possibility is that genes that cause a stronger biological urge to have children are being selected for.
One of the driving forces of human evolution was infant mortality, which weeded out genes for disease susceptibility in childhood, for example. But in rich societies, modern medicine means that this has only a minor effect. More recently, contraception has also enabled women to choose how many children they have and when. The new research implies that controlling such forces doesn't mean evolution is no longer happening. Instead, new traits are being selected for.
"What makes you fit now is whether you have more babies than the next person, " says team member Simon Blomberg from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "But that's not necessarily to do with health any more. It is more to do with the decisions we make."
But natural selection of this sort could have worrying implications. "If our results are correct, one would predict steady selective pressure toward earlier reproduction," says Martin, "and selection against women who delay childbearing, and the traits that currently drive women to professional success'.
So as society encourages women to have children later, the biological urge to have kids early could discourage them from having careers. "The genes are pushing in the other direction," says Owens. "There's a fierce conflict between a career and wanting to reproduce." Joanna Merchant More at: Evolution (vot 55, p 4231
Keepng the tabs on our DNA
IN THE US, it would be protected by steel doors and armed guards. In Britain, anonymity does the job. Tucked away on an industrial estate near Birmingham, you'd scarcely know the brick-and-glass building was there-let alone that it houses the biggest collection of human DNA in the world. A collection that's getting biggerand more contentious-by the day. For years, police in Britain have been quietly exercising their right to collect saliva swabs ftom almost anyone they take into cus tody. Those swabs now fill scores of industrial freezers in the basement of the anonymous looking building. Upstairs, a database holds over a million DNA profiles based on these samples. And because crime never stops, up to 3000 new samples arrive every day.
on the streets of LA or New York the cops might have more firepower. But it's in Britain, land of the unarmed bobby on the beat, where the brave new world of the "DNA police" is taking shape. And if Tony Blair and his colleagues have their way, it'll take shape sooner than most people realise. The British government wants to treble the number of DNA samples police take and expand the criminal database to 3.5 million samples over the next three years. That means the police will hold the DNA profile of nearly I out of every 15 people in Britain.
To hit this target, the government is giving the police unprecedented powers to collect and keep DNA samples from suspects-even if they turn out to be innocent. The necessary Criminal justice and Police Bill is being considered by Parliament right now. Police chiefs are ecstatic. Civil rights advocates see it as unparalleled threat to privacy. But most people in Britain seem to be sleepwalking through the debate. Now could be the time to wake up. New Scientist has found that forensic experts-the people you'd expect to be most in favourare actually uneasy about the proposal to retain DNA samples. Even the inventor of DNA fingerprinting is alarmed. "I'm totally opposed," says Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester. "It's discriminating, inconsistent with privacy laws and an example of ad hoc sloppy thinking." There's no doubt DNA evidence is transforming police work-and mostly for the better. All detectives need do is find a single hair, speck of blood or even a flake of dandruff at a crime scene. Then, after the few hours it takes for analysis, they can trawl the database for matching DNA. Often with stunning success. Since 1995, more than 100,000 links between people and crime scenes have popped out of the computer. Every week, it delivers 800 more. And it's no longer just murderers or rapists who have to worry. In Britain these days, nearly 90 per cent of all DNA matches are for burglaries, robberies and car theft. Increasingly, there is nowhere for criminals to hide, as Stephen Snowden found out when he was arrested for stealing a bottle of whisky from a British supermarket. DNA testing linked him to the rape, years earlier, of a woman whose car broke down. Stealing the whisky led to a 12-year sentence for rape.
So routinely "swabbing" everyone taken into custody can pay off bigtime. It is what happens to the samples and profiles afterwards that disturbs critics. Other countries with a criminal DNA database destroy them if the suspect is cleared. Uniquely, the British government intends to keep them indefinitely, regardless of the outcome. So the DNA profiles of thousands of innocent people will end up on the criminal database.
'It goes against fundamental principles of justice," says David Balding, a geneticist at the University of Reading who helped expose early statistical problems with DNA fingerprinting. "If you're acquitted or found not guilty, you shouldn't have to pay any kind of penalty, no matter how small."
But what is the penalty? As Britain's Home Office likes to point out, if you are an innocent, law-abiding person, why should you worry about having your DNA profile scanned in the nightly trawl for criminals?
One reason is that being on a database of potential offenders regularly searched by the police puts you at risk of being wrongly accused of crimes. The risk of two people having the same DNA profile is nowhere near as great as it once was, thanks to technical advances-but it can happen. Raymond Easton, a builder from Swindon, gave a DNA sample in 1995 after a minor domestic incident. Three years later, he became the prime suspect for a burglary after the forensic computer matched his profile to a drop of blood from the crime scene. By this time, Easton was suffering from Parkinson's disease and had trouble dressing himself.
The match was based on an analysis of six regions of the DNA found at the crime scene. There was only a 1 in 37 million chance of another person matching in each of the six regions. Unfortunately, Easton was that person. In 1999, a more powerful test based on 10 regions of his DNA cleared him. The episode so rattled Britain's Forensic Science Service that they immediately made the more expensive 10-region test standard.
This has shrunk the risk of a chance match to one in a billion. But the possibility of a rogue result hasn't vanished altogether. "There's always the possibility of error, even with the 10-point match," says Robert Forrest, a forensic toxicologist at the University of Sheffield. "The tests are carried out by humans, and humans are prone to error."
'The proposal to retain DNA samples Is discriminating, Inconsistent with privacy laws and an example of sloppy thinking,' says Alec Jeffreys
Humans are also prone to shedding bits of themselves wherever they go-creating more possibilities for wrongful suspicion. As few as 50 cells-the number you might shed brushing the back of your hand against a glass door-can yield a genetic fingerprint. And soon a single cell might be enough.
"As the tests become more sensitive, there's a greater chance of picking up innocent contact at a crime scene," says Adrian Linacre, a forensics expert at the University of Strathclyde. A stray hair or cigarette butt dropped by an innocent person might bring them under suspicion if they are on the database.
A bigger concern is what happens to the stored DNA samples and profiles in the future. Who will have access to them and the information they contain?
A DNA profile is just a string of numbers stored on a computer (see below). In theory it contains no more information about you than the number on your driving licence. But the samples in the freezer contain all your genetic secrets. Scientists might one day be able to return and extract detailed information about your appearance, health and even your behaviour. It is already possible to test crime scene DNA to see if the offender has red hair. In future, police might want to know about height, skin colour or even any unusual medical conditions. Britain's national DNA database would be an ideal place to go trawling for the genetic markers needed to develop such biological "photofits". And crucially, if someone does attempt to use the database for this purpose, the DNA donors will be unable to object. "One of the principles of research is that you can withdraw consent from a project," says Forrest. "Here you can't withdraw consent." Forrest also worries the huge emphasis being placed on DNA evidence will tempt police to arrest people on trumped-up minor charges just to get a DNA sample. That, say some, would take us perilously close to random DNA sampling on the streets. Indeed, efforts are already underway to develop handheld DNA profilers. The government rejects this as paranoia, and claims that current laws make it illegal to use the database for anything other than identifying suspects. But laws can always be ignored-and have been. When the national database was set up in 1995, samples and profiles were supposed to be destroyed if suspects were cleared. That hasn't been happening. Last year, an internal government report estimated that up to 80,000 samples and profiles were being retained illegally. Even the government's own advisers fear the worst. According to Britain's Data Protection Act, anyone who volunteers biological samples for a database has the right at a later date to ask for the sample and corresponding record to be destroyed. The new legislation specifically removes that right, says Jonathan Bamford, assistant commissioner of the Data Protection Commission.
Bamford thinks the onus should be on the police to prove the benefits of keeping DNA records of innocent people. "If there are no matches, what is the purpose of keeping the sample and record?" To deter people from committing more serious offences, perhaps. "There's no evidence that DNA records act as a deterrent," says Forrest. "They are just as likely to lead to more forensically aware offenders. You'll use a condom next time you rape, or wear a disposable boiler suit." Indeed, one sex offender caught recently was found to have shaved off all his body hair, trimmed his nails and even plucked his nostril hairs.
So if not for deterrence, why do the authorities want to keep all the records? Easy, says Alec Jeffreys. Deep down they believe that innocent people who've had a brush with the law are more likely than not to be criminals. According to Jeffreys, there is only one way to prevent any abuse of the DNA samples-destroy them all after a DNA profile has been obtained. Currently, the police rely on going back to the samples to check any matches-a practice Jeffreys regards as suspect. Any checking of results, he says, should be carried out on a fresh sample obtained from the suspect.
What alarms him most, though, is the unfairness of lumping together innocent people and criminals. Suspects who are cleared should have the right to remove their DNA profiles, he says. Or, more radically, the database should contain everyone's DNA profile, filed at birth.
That prospect will appal many civil rights campaigners. But according to Jeffreys, it is fairer than what is being proposed. If you keep the DNA profiles of some innocent people, he says, you ought to keep them all. David Concar
Lonely planet Earth may be one of pitifully few places capable of sustaining life
THE search for planets like our own that may support life could be long and frustrating. A new study of the Orion Nebula, the nearest star-forming region to the Earth, suggests that barren lumps of rock may be all that's orbiting up to 90 per cent of stars.
In the past six years, relatively crude methods have turned up nearly 70 planets beyond our Solar System. So astronomers were hopeful that the galaxy might be teeming with environments welcoming to life. But Henry Throop of the University of Colorado in Boulder says that his model of the Orion Nebula suggests that planet formation is far from easy. About 20,000 young stars have formed in the Orion Nebula. "Most of those are lowmass stars like the Sun, but a handful are high-mass stars with a brightness of about 1000 times the brightness of the Sun," says Throop. Such stars blast out ultraviolet photons. "They act like cosmic blowtorches," he says. "They just heat up and tear apart a lot of the material nearby. Specifically they destroy the planet-forming discs. around many of the low-mass stars."
Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley, who has found dozens of extrasolar planets, agrees that nascent planets face a struggle. "The diverse and often harsh environments endured by protoplanetary discs may limit the types of planets that can form in the most common starforming regions." In the 1990s, a team of astronomers led by Bob O'Dell of Vanderbilt University
in Nashville observed these evaporating discs for the first time using the Hubble Space Telescope. Since then, astronomers have debated whether the discs could last long enough to form planets. In 1999, follow-up work by O'Dell and colleagues suggested not. The evaporation rate they deduced from the discs' spectra suggests they survive around 100,000 years, says O'Dell. This is far too short to form planets, which could take between 1 and 10 million years. Since the majority of stars probably form in regions similar to the Orion Nebula, this implies that as many as 90 per cent of stars have no companion planets. But Throop doesn't think the situation is quite so bleak. His modelling reveals that close in on the disc-roughly the distance from the Sun to Saturn-gravity clumps dust grains together fast enough to resist the ultraviolet blast. "You can make planets like the Earth, no problem," he says. Gas, however, would be blown away. So comets and Jupiter-like planets, which are made of gas, cannot form. But don't get too optimistic about finding life on other planets quite yet. Any Earth-sized planets would form without atmospheres and oceans, rendering them lifeless chunks of rock. Throop points out that the known extrasolar planets broadly support his model's conclusions. Astronomers have only found planets around roughly 5 per cent of the stars they observe. Stuart Clark More at: wwwsciencemag.org/sciencexpress/recent.shtml
A real eye-opener One shot of genes might be enough to cure some forms of blindness
IN A dramatic demonstration of the power of gene therapy, dogs with a rare inherited form of blindness have had their sight restored. The work could be an important step towards the treatment of eye diseases in humans. "It is the sort of result, that if you are lucky, you see once in your career," says jean Bennett of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "We are really excited."
The dogs in the study had a naturally occurring eye disease called Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), which causes the light-sensing tissue of the retina to malfunction and degrade. LCA also occurs in people. Sufferers usually lose their vision in infancy.
The condition can be caused by a mutation in one of three known genes. Defects in other, as yet unknown, genes riiay also cause the condition. The dogs in the study had a defect in the gene for a protein called RPE65, which helps create a pigment necessary for normal vision.
So Bennett and her colleagues engineered a good copy of the gene into an adenoassociated virus and injected it directly into the retina of the right eye of three dogs. The result was an enormous boost in electrical activity and pupil function in *right eyes. I As controls, the virus was injected only into the eyeball fluid of the left eye of two of the dogs, while the left eye of the third dog was not given any injections. These eyes showed no signs of improvements.
But the moment of truth came when the dogs had to navigate a poorly lit obstacle course of tables and chairs. The animals were able to deftly steer around objects in front of them and to their right. "Without the treatment, they bumped into things like a pinball in a machine," says Bennett.
So far, there don't appear to be any side effects or strong immune responses to the treatment. "It's a really excellent paper, a large contribution to the field," says John Flannery, who works on eye gene therapy at the University of California, Berkeley. The work could lead to a treatment for LCA in people. However, it's not yet clear whether such treatments would work for older people whose retinal structures may have degenerated beyond repair.
The lessons learned about virus delivery and gene activation should also help researchers develop treatments for more common diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, which is responsible for half of all blindness in people over 50. Bennett and her colleagues are following the dogs to see if any problems develop and how long the treatment will last. Philip Cohen More at: Nature Genetics (vol 28, p 92)
Feel the force
The standard model can explain nearly every particle interaction ever seen. Yet it has considerable shortcomings. For example, it completely ignores the fourth force of nature, gravity. It cannot account for dark matter. And it even tends to trip itself up: unless theorists tune the parameters of the model very carefully, the mass of the Higgs becomes outrageously large, at which point the whole theory falls apart. Supersymmetry can help to solve these problems. The idea is to make a theory that is more symmetrical. For every standard model fermion, supersymmetry supposes that there is a heavier, but otherwise identical boson, and for every standard model boson it supposes a heavier, but otherwise identical fermion. The extra particles are known as superpartners. The electron partners the selectron, the top quark partners the stop squark, the photon partners the photino, the W boson partners the Wino, and so on. For years such superpartners were considered mere mathematical abstractions, until researchers discovered h6w useful they could be. First, supersymmetry keeps the mass of the Higgs down (see "Big Higgs", opposite). What's more it could help to wrap the four forces into one unified force.
Between any two particles, the four forces act with very different strengths. The strong overpowers electromagnetic, the electromagnetic overpowers the weak, and all three overpower gravity. But physicists think that the four forces are really different manifestations of the same single "superforce", which ruled the ultra-hot Universe just after the big bang, and dictated how much and what kind of matter emerged. When two particles colide with very high energies, the forces should act with the same strength.
Physicists can calculate how the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces tend to change strength as the energy of particle collisions increases. These changes are produced by virtual particles that enshroud the colliding real particles. If the researchers only include the standard model particles in their calculations, all three forces never have the same strength at a single energy. But adding supersymmetric particles makes the forces equalise at energies about a million billion times higher than those achieved in particle accelerators so far. This suggests that any theory that rolls these forces together must ultimately include supersymmetry, says Frank Wilczek, a theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One example that does this is superstring theory, which proposes that everything is made of tiny vibrating strings.
Supersymmetry could also explain dark matter, the mysterious stuff that is thought to account for 90 per cent of the mass of the Universe and provide the gravity needed to hold galaxies together. The lightest superpartner should be a heavy, stable particle that rarely interacts with ordinary matter. This makes it an ideal candidate for dark matter. Moreover, supersymmetry predicts the right amount of dark matter coming out of the big bang, says John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN. Despite all this promise, supersymmetry is untested and vague. The theory doesn't say exactly how heavy the superpartners should be. All that physicists know for sure is that they haven't seen one yet, even in the highest energy particle collisions in the lab.
But there are subtler ways to stalk supersymmetry. In February, researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York announced that a particle called the muon was slightly more magnetic than expected. The tiny discrepancy-four parts in a billion-could be accounted for by new particles, they say. A muon traveling through a magnetic field emits and reabsorbs virtual particles, and each virtual particle interacts with the magnetic field and effectively alters the magnetism of the original muon. 'Any particle that is there can contribute," says Roberts. The standard model allows theorists to count up the contributions from the known fermions and bosons and calculate the muon's magnetism to less than one part in a billion.
At Brookhaven, the team studied the motion and decay of roughly a billion muons in a precisely measured magnetic field, which enabled them to measure the magnetism of the muon with an uncertainty of only 1.5 parts per billion. The result disagrees with the standard model calculation, : the familiar particles aren't anythingtknown to come in and out of existing muon.
Results reported at CERN a few months earlier on the Large ron or LEP, reported a that may Higgs mass of 115 GeV lighter than 400 GeV supersymmetry theory.
'OTHER PHENOMENA MAY SOLVE THE PROBLEMS, SUCH AS NEW FORCES OR NEW DIMENSIONS THAT OPEN AT HIGH ENERGIES'
Meanwhile, after four years of refurbishment, Fermilab's powerful Tevatron collider started producing data in March. If the LEP result is right, a Higgs boson should fall right in the sweet spots of Fermilab's two big particle detectors, says Sharon Hagopian of Florida State University in Tallahassee. "If it really is at 115 or 120 GeV,' she says, 'we have an excellent chance of finding it." A firm detection of such a light Higgs would back up the supersymmetry interpretation.
Of course, a direct detection of a supersymmetric particle would be better. Researchers disagree on whether the lightest superpartner is likely to surface first at Fermilab or CERN's more powerful Large Hadron Collider, which will power up in 2006. It could simply be too massive for the Tevatron to make, says Simona Rolli of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. And experimenters can't be sure what they're looking for. "With the search for the top quark, we knew the mass range and we knew it had to be there," she says. 'In this case, we don't really have a hint from the theory." But Kane believes that the evidence from Brookhaven and LEP makes the discovery of a superpartner at Fermilab likely.
It is possible that supersymmetry simply doesn't exist and that other phenomena, such as new forces or new dimensions that open up only for very high energy particles, will solve the standard model's problems. But that is relatively unlikely, says Howard Haber, a theorist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. These other phenomena seem to be inconsistent with experiments performed at LEP and elsewhere, he says.
Even if supersymmetry doesn't exist, physicists generally agree that as experimenters push to energies beyond 100 GeV the standard model will begin to crack. At some point a mechanism will be found that limits the Higgs mass. Or if the Higgs itself doesn't appear, some other phenomenon must emerge to account for the masses of the W and Z bosons.
All of this means that a slew of new particles wait just over the high-energy horizon. The deeper truths of the Universe may soon emerge from the shadows of the standard model. El