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Can your DNA predict what you look like?

On 30th January 2015 the Mail Online reported that forensic experts can use a person’s DNA to predict their eye and hair colour, freckling and the shape of their face.

The technique is called DNA phenotyping and uses genetic ancestry information from DNA to predict physical characteristics. The Mail article showed images from a US company that suggested using information from a person’s DNA, researchers could generate facial reconstructions for use in forensic police work.

DNA Phenotyping (C) Parabon Nanolabs

Dr Matthias Wienroth from the Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science told us that “Determining face shape using DNA analysis is still at an early research stage, as many genes are involved. Analysing ancestry-informative markers is an emerging technology that can provide estimates of a person’s genetic ancestry rather than clear-cut information on the appearance of a person. This technique provides indicators for appearance based to some extent on our cultural expectations about, for example, the appearance of a person with Northern European ancestry compared to a person with East Asian ancestry. This is not the same nor as informative as analyses that use other genetic markers to provide information about a person’s externally visible characteristics such as face shape, eye or hair colour.”

The US company claims it can use as little as 0.05 nanograms of DNA for its tests, but Dr Wienroth says this “is probably a little ambitious for now, however, efforts are made – as part of so-called ‘next generation sequencing’ – to achieve analysis sensitivity to that level.”

Dr Wienroth concludes:

“Whilst DNA technologies for externally visible characteristics are at different stages of development, with hair and iris colour being the furthest along, they should be used with care so that investigators don’t expect a ‘photo-fit’ (as implied in the article by the use of the term ‘e-fit’). An article in the FT Magazine from 30 January emphasises that information about a person’s appearance, and on their genetic ancestry would only provide police with 'intelligence leads' rather than information than can be used as evidence.”

For more on this, read our guide: Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing.


An act of nuclear terrorism...but did it really put thousands at risk?

Amid growing tensions between the UK and Russia, the Alexander Litvinenko case has been hitting the headlines. On Wednesday 28th January national newspapers, including the Telegraph, Mirror, and Independent led with the story that a ‘radioactive trail’ left by the assassins over London meant that “many thousands of members of the public, both British residents and visitors from overseas, might have been at risk from the radioactivity” Robin Tam, QC.

But with quotes like “could have massacred thousands of people” how real was the risk to the general public? How much danger were the capital’s residents and visitors actually in?

We asked nuclear expert Dr John Roberts, Nuclear Fellow at the University of Manchester, about the level of risk posed by polonium-210 (210Po) – the substance used to poison Litvinenko.

“Polonium-210 is an alpha emitter, with a half life of 138 days, and is only dangerous if it somehow gets inside your body, as in the Litvinenko case.” In Dr Roberts opinion, for 210Po to have been a risk it would “require the person to have touched the polonium and then to have maybe licked their finger or some other way of getting the isotope inside their body” and  “just having it in the same room would not kill you.” The risk was mainly to the assassins and the people who handled the mode of delivery- the tea used to poison him.

The lack of casualties from the incident also testifies to the relatively low risk to the general public, as 210Po is highly radioactive and very toxic, so any deaths would have been seen soon after exposure. The half-life of polonium-210 is also very short, meaning that it would burn itself out and lose its potency quickly, much reducing the risk.

Dr Roberts' take home message was that “there was a risk, but it was limited by the fact that the 210Po had to enter the body.” So in reality the risk to the public was lower than these stories suggested.

Image by Pascal (CC BY 2.0)


Fact Check Central

From crime to children’s diets, to global development, to hair loss, facts form part of the arguments, and we often see different facts marshaled in support of different conclusions. We all benefit from lively debates but no-one benefits from reality being misrepresented, or from dismissing things that are true.

Because misleading claims and statistics tend to take on a life of their own, Sense About Science has been correcting simple factual errors in media reports for some years now, with For the Record, which has become a popular place for people to check. But it covers a relatively small range and over the past few years there have been several excellent initiatives in different kinds of fact checking. We’d love to see these used and discussed as widely as possible, and shared so that someone following one knows about the others.

Today we are launching Fact Check Central so that we can all read, search and share fact checking blogs from across the web.

Fact checking isn’t just about separating true from false. Done well, it can give proper context to claims, allow space for deeper understanding, and deflate the rhetoric and bluster that often surrounds controversial issues.

Fact Check Central is a simple, aggregated list of blogs from a selection of fact checking organisations, sorted by topic and in chronological order. We hope that it can become a helpful, single place to see if a story or claim has been – or is being – fact checked, and that you’ll use and share it.

And please do share this blog post on Twitter.


Axing Europe's top science job is a step backwards

This is an article published in the New Scientist. You can read the full piece here.

So Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president of the European Commission, has scrapped the role of chief scientific adviser.

No one will now bring scientific scrutiny to the political decisions of the Commission, the body at the heart of European policy-making that affects half a billion citizens across 28 nations. The most senior European regulators and law-makers no longer have a link to the evidence base of the European research community.

What Juncker announced was the termination of the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, which provided the commission's president, commissioners and directors-general with strategic advice. The chief scientific adviser role was based within this body. The replacement body Juncker proposes – the European Political Strategy Centre – does not include a similar science post.

The chief scientific adviser, working with scant resources and a lack of clarity, has only ever been a single thread rather than the many ropes that were needed. But the creation of the role was a recognition by policy-makers that science and evidence are tools for making better, more accountable policies. It was an aspiration, one which followed a series of directives that made little sense and were full of unintended consequences.

Continue reading at New Scientist


Evidence on drugs policy held back from the public debate

Do tougher laws reduce drug use? An international comparison of the way different countries regulate drugs suggests not – but instead of this evidence informing the public debate over the last few months, the politics of drug policy has meant the findings were suppressed until today.

The Home Office conducted a study comparing drug laws in thirteen countries, concluding that “looking across different countries, there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.” But the report’s publication was delayed by months – because the report’s findings are inconvenient for politicians who claim that tough criminal sanctions work to reduce the harm from drugs.

It’s one thing for Ministers to decide that despite this evidence, they wish to keep the UK’s current drug laws in place. The official Home Office stance is that “Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK.”

It’s unacceptable, however, for the evidence itself to be suppressed or delayed – no matter what it concludes. As a minimum, policy should be informed by the best available evidence, and it would be just as unacceptable if supporters of decriminalisation had prevented a study that supported tough laws from being published. Doing so distorts an already ill-informed debate.

The suppression, delay and alteration of evidence that doesn’t suit political agendas is not new. In the last year alone we’ve seen reports on minimum alcohol pricing, food banks, immigration and fracking held back from public discussion for political reasons. Evidence Matters, our new campaign for accountable public policy, will investigate cases of government suppressing evidence as it calls for the effective and transparent use of evidence in public policy.