August 12, 2009

Ethnicity inference from DNA in Madrid terrorist attacks

In case there was any lingering doubt about the utility of inferring ancestry from DNA:

PLoS ONE 4(8): e6583. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006583

Ancestry Analysis in the 11-M Madrid Bomb Attack Investigation

Christopher Phillips et al.


The 11-M Madrid commuter train bombings of 2004 constituted the second biggest terrorist attack to occur in Europe after Lockerbie, while the subsequent investigation became the most complex and wide-ranging forensic case in Spain. Standard short tandem repeat (STR) profiling of 600 exhibits left certain key incriminatory samples unmatched to any of the apprehended suspects. A judicial order to perform analyses of unmatched samples to differentiate European and North African ancestry became a critical part of the investigation and was instigated to help refine the search for further suspects. Although mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosome markers routinely demonstrate informative geographic differentiation, the populations compared in this analysis were known to show a proportion of shared mtDNA and Y haplotypes as a result of recent gene-flow across the western Mediterranean, while any two loci can be unrepresentative of the ancestry of an individual as a whole. We based our principal analysis on a validated 34plex autosomal ancestry-informative-marker single nucleotide polymorphism (AIM-SNP) assay to make an assignment of ancestry for DNA from seven unmatched case samples including a handprint from a bag containing undetonated explosives together with personal items recovered from various locations in Madrid associated with the suspects. To assess marker informativeness before genotyping, we predicted the probable classification success for the 34plex assay with standard error estimators for a naïve Bayesian classifier using Moroccan and Spanish training sets (each n = 48). Once misclassification error was found to be sufficiently low, genotyping yielded seven near-complete profiles (33 of 34 AIM-SNPs) that in four cases gave probabilities providing a clear assignment of ancestry. One of the suspects predicted to be North African by AIM-SNP analysis of DNA from a toothbrush was identified late in the investigation as Algerian in origin. The results achieved illustrate the benefit of adding specialized marker sets to provide enhanced scope and power to an already highly effective system of DNA analysis for forensic identification.


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