New DNA Testing Could Help California's Missing Persons, Cold Case Investigations

The dome and exterior of the State Capitol building in California
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Law enforcement investigators and the families of missing people stand to benefit from a new DNA testing breakthrough announced this week by the California Department of Justice.

The new testing technology allows crime lab technicians to fully sequence mitochondrial DNA, which makes it easier to test samples from human remains that have decayed beyond the point at which current DNA testing is generally effective.

"Anything we can do to help families find closure is critical," Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a news release Monday. "This breakthrough will help make a direct difference in people's lives."

Department officials said theirs is the first state crime lab in North America to be accredited to use the new test, which allows technicians to fully sequence mitochondrial DNA.

Typically, crime labs turn to mitochondrial DNA testing when the remains under examination have been so thoroughly decomposed that all or most of the usable nuclear DNA has been degraded beyond the point of usefulness, according to Justice Department officials.

And until now, tests were only able to analyze about 5 percent of the mitochondrial DNA genome, which is passed along from mothers to their children.

By sequencing the entire genome, technicians will be more likely to identify the remains of previously unknown people by comparing mitochondrial DNA provided by families to evidence from human remains collected by investigators, according to state officials.

This type of testing is useful in gleaning identifying information from evidence collected in cold cases, missing persons, mass disasters and "small pieces of evidence containing little biological material," according to the FBI's DNA Casework website.

Last year, 42,454 adults and 76,696 children were reported missing in California, according to the state Department of Justice.

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