Self-swabbing for offender DNA
In an ideal world, every victim of sexual assault would have ready access to professionals who can take samples for forensic analysis. In developing nations or during humanitarian crises this may not be possible, so the next best thing would be self-swabbing. Working with Professor Lisa Smith of the University of Leicester’s Criminology Department, Professor Jobling has developed a self-administered intimate swab that gathers DNA for Y-STR and autosomal profiling.
“We’re currently trialling the swabs in Kenya. There’s some distrust, and fear of entrapment, but this could not apply to attacks by strangers, and rapes where the victim is below the age of consent. The technology works, but society and the legal system are slow to adapt. We’re working with NGOs who do the advocacy.”
History is written in our DNA
“One of the things I’ve wanted to do with DNA is illuminate human history,” says Professor Jobling. “DNA that evolves slowly is great for tracing lineages from the Bronze Age to the present day. The progress of mass movements such as European colonisation are traceable through DNA. By studying the distribution of Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA – the DNA passed down through females – we can also see that males and females have behaved differently over the generations. The long-term pattern is for males to stay closer to their birthplaces on marriage, and females to move. But in the European colonisations of the last 500 years, it was the males who moved and spread their Y-DNA.”
An intriguing aspect of the persistence of Y-DNA is that there should be a correlation between family names and Y-DNA because both are passed down from father to son. Professor Jobling’s team were the first to suggest this in 1995.
“When I give public talks, the one thing everyone asks about is Y-DNA and surnames. Often there isn’t much of a link because family names – Smith for example – originate many times over. But for rarer family names – less than a few thousand individuals – the correlation can be good. When we analysed the name Attenborough, we found that 90% had the same Y-chromosomes. The link suggests a forensic application: given a sample of Y-DNA, we might be able to predict a surname.”
Taking the broader view
Professor Jobling’s research work has been on fundamental questions about genetic diversity and mutation, but also with an emphasis on translational research – science that leads to practical outcomes.
“I was never in the gene-hunter camp so there’s not been a eureka moment. I’ve always been interested in broader questions and in collaborating with others. Their work feeds into my own interests: forensics, genealogy, understanding history and the different roles that males and females have played in human history.
“I’m looking forward to what the next generation will do. Our research interests here at Leicester are moving on to animal genetics and conservation. In contrast, most aspects of the human genome have been nailed pretty firmly. Interest in ancient DNA is likely to continue, but researchers will eventually come up against a brick wall. There’s a limit on how far back we can go back for usable DNA. But who knows? Twenty years ago no one imagined being able to analyse Neanderthal DNA; now we have dozens of Neanderthal genome sequences.”
This open-ended attitude to what’s possible has fuelled Professor Jobling’s research. It’s touched our lives in numerous ways: more convictions or exonerations in the courts, valuable data for commercial organisations to develop forensic kits, a window into family lineages and a richer understanding of ancient and social history.