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How police can use family DNA tests to help solve cold cases

Your genetics say a lot about you and with new DNA technology detectives are getting new help solving cold cases.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Your genetics can say a lot about what you look like and who you're related to. But as technology develops it also unlocks the secrets inside your DNA. That information now helps detectives solve cold cases.

The Hot Springs Police Department used this new technology during their investigation into the cold case murder of Katie Lavender.

It's a nearly decade old case, but now has new DNA evidence. But how does it work?

Parabon Labs works to figure out that puzzle every day.

"Parabon is a DNA technology company and sort of the most exciting thing that we do is working in the forensics field," Ellen Greytak, Director of Bioinformatics at Parabon Labs said.

She gives DNA a much closer look than typical crime labs can when police hit a dead end or find no clear matches.

"We stick to those traits that are very, very strongly genetic. So, if we say you have your mother's eyes, well, that's because you have your mother's DNA."

The lab looks at thousands of markers in DNA strands for indicators for things like eye color, skin color, or freckles.

"What actually comes out of our predictions is like a three dimensional digital object. That's the shape of that person's face that we've predicted," Greytak said.

A forensic artist can turn that file into a snapshot of what the person probably looks like, based on DNA.

"It is just based on that person's DNA, anything about their appearance that's not genetic you know if they have tattoos, how they wear their hair, their facial hair, you know, that's not going to be able to be predicted," Greytak added.

That's when CeCe Moore, the Chief Genetic Genealogist, can fill in gaps with family tree information. 

"The amount of DNA shared tells us the approximate relationship," Moore said.

She's searching for even a small percentage of similarity that could help identify a distant relative or "people that are sharing DNA with this unknown perpetrator."

The pool of genetic data comes from some of the millions of DNA tests people can buy to see their own ancestry.

"We can start connecting into public records into traditional genealogical records like census records, birth, marriage, death records, that type of thing," Moore added.

Right now only the smaller companies let forensic labs use that information, and even then, you typically have to opt in.

It's led to positive identification on hundreds of suspects so far, Moore saying that they're "having a lot of success with it."

The science is still giving investigators crucial leads, in cold cases.

"It always in the end is going to be a DNA match to that goes to court. And so we're helping them figure out who to test," Greytak said.

The DNA research does come with a high price tag for that snapshot image it's about $3,000 and the family tree research about $5,000.

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