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Gloved hands putting pipet into test tubes

Genetic sleuthing techniques that led to the arrest of a suspect in the infamous Golden State Killer case this year are set to become vastly more powerful, suggest two papers published today1,2.

The studies conclude that it could soon be possible to search crime-scene DNA for links to nearly all Americans of European descent, while massively expanding the potential reach of an existing forensic genetic database. The results also raise urgent privacy issues, say researchers.

“It’s important to have this discussion early on,” says Yaniv Erlich, chief scientific officer at consumer genetics firm MyHeritage in Yehuda, Israel, and a computational geneticist at Columbia University in New York City, who led one of the studies, published in Science1.

Gathering information

From the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, a string of burglaries, sexual assaults and murders committed in California were attributed to an unknown person dubbed the Golden State Killer or the East Area Rapist. The case went cold, but in April 2018, police arrested a suspect named Joseph James DeAngelo. He was identified as...