DNA fingerprinting or DNA profiling, any of several similar techniques for analyzing and comparing DNA from separate sources, used especially in law enforcement to identify suspects from hair, blood, semen, or other biological materials found at the scene of a violent crime. It depends on the fact that no two people, save identical twins, have exactly the same DNA sequence, and that although only limited segments of a person's DNA are scrutinized in the procedure, those segments will be statistically unique.
A common procedure for DNA fingerprinting is restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP). In this method, DNA is extracted from a sample and cut into segments using special restriction enzymes. RFLP focuses on segments that contain sequences of repeated DNA bases, which vary widely from person to person. The segments are separated using a laboratory technique called electrophoresis, which sorts the fragments by length. The segments are radioactively tagged to produce a visual pattern known as an autoradiograph, or "DNA fingerprint," on X-ray film. A newer method known as short tandem repeats (STR) analyzes DNA segments for the number of repeats at 13 specific DNA sites. The chance of misidentification in this procedure is one in several billion. Yet another process, polymerase chain reaction, is used to produce multiple copies of segments from a very limited amount of DNA (as little as 50 molecules), enabling a DNA fingerprint to be made from a single hair. Once a sufficient sample has been produced, the pattern of the alleles (see genetics) from a limited number of genes is compared with the pattern from the reference sample. A nonmatch is conclusive, but the technique provides less certainty when a match occurs.
In criminal investigations, the DNA fingerprint of a suspect's blood or other body material is compared to that of the evidence from the crime scene to see how closely they match. The technique can also be used to establish paternity. First developed in the mid-1980s, DNA fingerprinting has been accepted in most courts in the United States, and has in several notable instances been used to exonerate or free persons convicted of crimes, but the Supreme Court has ruled (2009) that convicted criminals do not have a constitutional right to DNA testing. All states have established DNA fingerprint databases and require the collection of DNA from convicted felons, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has instituted a national DNA fingerprint database linking those of the states and including DNA collected in connection with federal offenses. DNA fingerprinting is generally regarded as a reliable forensic tool when properly done, but some scientists have called for wider sampling of human DNA to insure that the segments analyzed are indeed highly variable for all ethnic and racial groups. It is possible to create false genetic samples and use them to misdirect forensic investigators, but if those samples have been produced using gene amplification techniques they can be distinguished from normal DNA evidence.
The techniques used in DNA fingerprinting also have applications in paleontology, archaeology, various fields of biology, and medical diagnostics. It has, for example, been used to match the goatskin fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In biological classification, it can help to show evolutionary change and relationships on the molecular level, and it has the advantage of being able to be used even when only very small samples, such as tiny pieces of preserved tissue from extinct animals, are available.
See D. H. Kaye, The Double Helix and the Law of Evidence (2010).