Synthetic DNA and Fluorescent Criminals

DNA in a test tubeA high-tech crime-fighting tool that uses synthetic DNA and a fluorescent dye to label would-be criminals is being implemented in the United Kingdom (UK), Europe and elsewhere and may be making its way to America soon. The system consists of a container of fluorescent dye and synthetic DNA with a nozzle that emits a fine spray. If a someone attempts to rob the store, the clerk can activate a panic button, which alerts police and causes a mist of the harmless solution to be sprayed over the everything in the shop, including the robber. This spray is not easily washed away, especially in hard-to-reach areas like nostrils and under fingernails, and can be detected for weeks after the crime. The robber may not even know he has been marked because the droplets are so fine. However, law enforcements agents will know. The fluorescent dye glows blue under ultraviolet (UV) light, and officials only have to expose a suspect to UV light and observe a glow to help place him at a crime scene. In the UK, scanning incoming suspects with UV light is already standard operating procedure.

For example, in the town of Rawtenstall in northwestern England, an 18-year-old man was brought in for questioning in the burglary of a garden center. As he walked under the UV light, a blue glow emanated from his skin. He soon confessed to breaking into the garden center via the roof, which had been smeared with a gel containing the fluorescent dye and synthetic DNA.

In many cases, the blue glow is incriminating enough that suspects confess, hoping to negotiate a plea deal and shorter sentence. However, for more stubborn criminals, authorities could, in theory, connect the robber to the crime scene by detecting specific DNA sequences within the spray on his skin, although this type of DNA evidence has yet to be used in a criminal prosecution.

Law enforcement officials credit this new technology with a significant drop in crime in shops that have installed the system. Often the bright yellow sticker announcing the presence of this new crime-fighting mist near the shop’s door is deterrent enough to make a criminal think twice about robbing that particular store. In UK trials, this technology and prominent stickers advertising its presence were distributed to vulnerable residents and residents in crime-prone areas of London; crime was reduced by 65 percent.

Historically, forensic science has used a criminal’s own DNA to place him at a crime scene by analyzing biological evidence deposited during the crime. Now, however, crime fighters can actively label criminals with synthetic DNA (and, of course, the fluorescent dye) to help prevent and solve crimes. I can’t help but wonder what ingenious tools scientists will develop in the future to help law enforcement take a bite out of crime.

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

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