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Pinch of DNA to reconstruct a suspect's face may help Fla. police

By Megan Hamilton     Dec 7, 2015 in Science
Coral Gables - For over two years, he has lurked in the shadows, terrorizing more than a dozen women and confounding police.
Sometimes he touches women's feet or hair. Sometimes he sexually assaults them.
He's been dubbed the "Serial Creeper" and Florida police are struggling to find him. And new technology may help them do just that, Science News reports.
In September, they released a sketch of a Latino man with dark hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones, a pointed chin and smooth skin. But this sketch wasn't drawn by a police artist and it wasn't based on eyewitness accounts. The Creeper has concealed his face in every assault, noted police officer Kelly Denham, in Coral Gables, Fla.
"He's never been seen," Denham said.
So they turned to the genetics company Parabon Nanolabs, which uses Snapshot, a sophisticated phenotype report. The company analyzed DNA remnants left behind at a crime scene. This time though, the company wasn't searching for fingerprints. Instead, they used the DNA evidence to create a digital likeness of the alleged Creeper's face, The Business Insider reports.
Parabon Nanolabs sold the image shown below to the police for $4,500, Science News reports.
The science of creating a face
What most of us don't realize, is that the science behind the idea of using DNA to predict a face has been around for years.
New York City artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg used this very same technology in 2012 to produce sculptures of complete strangers. She did this by using the tiny bits of DNA left behind on discarded cigarettes and chewing gum that she collected off the streets, Business Insider reports.
She isolated that DNA by using an uncomplicated lab procedure at a small community lab in Brooklyn. Next, she wrote a computer code that was based on a face model from a design by researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Hagborg then used this information to comb through all the DNA, picking out only genes that coded for physical traits, such as hair and eye color.
Her exhibit, "Stranger Visions," has been shown in galleries worldwide.
This new method of utilizing DNA doesn't just tell us about a person's hair or eye color. It can also indicate the shade of a person's skin, the width of a nose, and the distance between the eyes, Business Insider reports.
"It's giving investigators new leads," Ellen McRae Greytak, Parabon's director of bioinformatics, told Popular Science. "The idea of Snapshot is to give investigators a new way to use DNA."
So far, the company has worked on 10 cases for different U.S. police departments, she noted.
While other biotech companies like Identitas and Illumina offer eye and hair color guesses, Parabon Nanolabs is unique in offering an illustrated face example.
While eye and hair color are scientifically fairly predictable, much of the scientific literature that's available publicly suggests researchers are only just learning how to predict the shape of a person's face based on their genetics.
"Based on what the published research shows, I would be very skeptical that at this moment, someone has this knowledge," Manfred Kayser, a biologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands told PopSci. He developed methods for guessing hair and eye colors that are used by Illumina and other companies.
Why is the shape of a face more difficult to determine than hair or eye color?
Our faces are controlled by many more genes, and any one small gene scientists discover that is associated with face shape only has a small effect. Since fewer genes control hair and eye color, it's easier for scientists to locate most of them. But even then, it's still guesswork, and that's why estimates for eye color and hair color from DNA note numbers like "90 percent confident." When it comes to predicting skin color from DNA, the science for doing that is somewhere between that for eyes and hair, and that for face shape.
While Greytak acknowledges that Snapshot isn't super-precise, neither is the science ready for it to be, she notes.
"Our goal is not to produce a profile that is perfectly accurate and there is only one person you've ever seen who could match that profile," she says. "Really our goal is to produce something that will look similar enough to a person that it will job a memory and, at the same time, make it clear which people it is not."
While Parabon hasn't published a study that tests its predictions as yet, numerous law enforcement agencies have checked it out, Greytak notes, per Science News. And some agencies have given the company a test run, sending out a few DNA samples prior to purchasing the product. Then the agencies compare photos with Parabon's prediction. Greytak says the company has "nailed every single one of those." The agencies haven't made test results public.
Parabon's predictions take in genetic information about sex, ancestry, and facial characteristics from databases that include about 15,000 people. Even so, Greytak notes "we need a lot more data. That's the big thing." If you're looking to capture the variation of human faces, you need to have a good idea what a wide variety of faces look like relative to their genetics, she adds.
Greytak says she knows that Parabon's technology can't identify individuals in the same way as a photograph does. However, the technology is "absolutely ready from the point of view of exclusion," she says. With the images, investigators have the chance to rule out suspects.
In the case of the Creeper, who was last linked to a crime in August, the profile gives frustrated investigators another idea to explore.
"We're at a standstill in the investigation," Denham said. "That's why we turned to the Parabon DNA profile."
"Let's see what we can come up with to try and find this guy."
The Creeper has been stalking and targeting his victims, Coral Gables Police Chief Edward Hudak told He is suspected of terrorizing up to 50 women.
The suspect sneaks into first floor apartments in the middle of the night, and this has happened in Coral Gables, Miami, and possibly in Miami Beach.
Hopefully, with this new technology, police will get their man, and scores of Florida women will sleep easier.
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