According to a new study published in the Gerontology, mini-review puts recent developments in age estimation via (epi)genetic methods in the context of the requirements and goals of forensic genetics and highlights paths to follow in the future of forensic genomics.
Forensic genetics developed from protein-based techniques a quarter of a century ago and became famous as "DNA fingerprinting," this being based on restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) of high-molecular-weight DNA. The amplification of much smaller short tandem repeat (STR) sequences using the polymerase chain reaction soon replaced RFLP analysis and advanced to become the gold standard in genetic identification.
Meanwhile, STR multiplexes have been developed and made commercially available which simultaneously amplify up to 30 STR loci from as little as 15 cells or fewer. The enormous information content that comes with the large variety of observed STR genotypes allows for genetic individualisation (with the exception of identical twins). Carefully selected core STR loci form the basis of intelligence-led DNA databases that provide investigative leads by linking unsolved crime scenes and criminals through their matched STR profiles.
Nevertheless, the success of modern DNA fingerprinting depends on the availability of reference material from suspects. In order to provide new investigative leads in cases where such reference samples are absent, forensic scientists started to explore the prediction of phenotypic traits from the DNA of the evidentiary sample. This paradigm change now uses DNA and epigenetic markers to forecast characteristics that are useful to triage further investigative work. So far, the best investigated externally visible characteristics are eye, hair and skin colour, as well as geographic ancestry and age.
Information on the chronological age of a stain donor (or any sample donor) is elemental for forensic investigations in a number of aspects and has, therefore, been explored by researchers in some detail. Among different methodological approaches tested to date, the methylation-sensitive analysis of carefully selected DNA markers (CpG sites) has brought the most promising results by providing prediction accuracies of ±3-4 years, which can be comparable to, or even surpass those from, eyewitness reports.
In conclusion, the mini-review puts recent developments in age estimation via (epi)genetic methods in the context of the requirements and goals of forensic genetics and highlights paths to follow in the future of forensic genomics.