Background

DNA profiling was first described (as DNA fingerprinting) by Sir Alec Jeffreys in 1985. Since then, this technology has evolved into the most powerful method to investigate biological evidence from crime scenes. It has an enormous impact on the safety of citizens and the security of society by providing reliable tools to link criminal offenders to criminal offences. Highly informative and robust DNA typing systems have been developed which are extremely efficient for the individualization of biological material of human origin and a large effort has been dedicated to standardization of these genetic marker systems.

In the last few years, due to the wide ranging and accelerating advances in genomics, new DNA markers and new applications have arisen. A new type of marker, Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), is opening novel applications such as the analysis of externally visible traits, or the assignment of the biogeographic ancestry of biological samples. Scientists are working to identify genetic markers that influence physical characteristics such as hair, skin or eye colour, in the hope of one day using DNA samples from crime scenes to be able to reconstruct a perpetrators externally visible appearance. However, these scientific efforts are currently not coordinated making it difficult to know the exact state of the art in the field and to identify experts at the national level when the expertise is required in an investigation.

While some standardization groups on human DNA typing exist in Europe, i.e. the European DNA Profiling Group (EDNAP; http://www.isfg.org/ednap), and the DNA Working Group of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes (ENFSI; http://www.enfsi.eu), the absence of coordinated research at the European level is a factor limiting progress in the area. A network coordinating high level collaborative forensic genetic research by combining local resources from academic institutions with work carried out by police and security forces is therefore urgently needed.

The same is true of education and the dissemination of knowledge for experts, police officers, judges, and all other end-users in general. There is a complete lack of common educational and training programs in state-of-the-art forensic genetics in Europe. The harmonization of education and the implementation of expert qualification schemes are urgently needed.

Progress in this rapidly developing field of applied science also impacts strongly on the societal dimension of security. It will be essential to identify the social, legal and ethical risks associated with the application of forensic genetics in support of criminal investigations and national security. Public concerns about criminal DNA databases and the protection of individual privacy rights need to be understood and addressed in the context of maintaining the safety of citizens and the security of European societies. Research, industry, stakeholders and end-users need a common framework of reference to facilitate the exchange of ideas and opinions, and to improve and moderate both the practical applications and the social acceptance of these new technologies.

The networking action - the European Forensic Genetics Network of Excellence (EUROFORGEN-NoE) - will serve to connect these efforts and lay the foundations of a European virtual centre of research in forensic genetics aimed to introduce an international self-sustained institution fully supported by national activities.