DTRA Technology Uses DNA to Predict What a Person Looks Like

By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

SNPSHT Example 1 Illustration of Snapshot’s prediction results (Courtesy: Parabon/DTRA)

When you think of DNA, perhaps unsolved mysteries or infamous criminal cases come to mind. Technology funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is expanding our understanding of what DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, can do.

Parabon® Snapshot™ is the world’s first software application that can predict appearance and ancestry from a forensic DNA sample. Developed by Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs Inc. and funded by DTRA, the technology was made available to the law enforcement and counterterrorism communities in December 2014.

DNA, as many of us have come to know it, works like a fingerprint, of sorts. It can be matched to other DNA samples, like in a database or taken from a crime scene. If there’s no exact match, law enforcement is often left at a dead end. But, with Snapshot, officials can use DNA like a blueprint to essentially build a human.

“Snapshot is the first comprehensive phenotyping system able to accurately predict appearance and ancestry from forensic DNA samples,” said Parabon CEO Steve Armentrout.

snapshot-report_stack Illustration of Snapshot’s prediction results (Courtesy: Parabon/DTRA)

Developed to help the military dismantle improvised explosive device networks in Iraq and Afghanistan, Snapshot is the first tool that reads DNA’s code to create a composite image of a person. This new method of analyzing forensic DNA is now being used to help investigators solve challenging criminal cases. Civilian law enforcement communities are using it to solve decades-old cases and cases that have gone cold.

While Snapshot does not match DNA, it uses supercomputing to predict how the single nucleotide polymorphisms of the genome will make someone appear. In laymen’s terms, Snapshot uses a combination of genetics and computing to predict appearance from DNA.

Snapshot’s predicted phenotypes include detailed biogeographic ancestry, pigmentation (eye color, hair color, skin color, and freckling), and face morphology. The technology has helped law enforcement bring rapists and murderers to justice.

SNPSHT Example 2 Illustration of Snapshot’s prediction results (Courtesy: Parabon/DTRA)

In the two years since it was released to law enforcement, Snapshot has been used by more than 80 agencies. Snapshot analyses have been performed in 10 countries.

The Snapshot technology was named a 2016 Tibbets Award recipient by the Small Business Administration for exhibiting excellence in technology innovation. Recipients are chosen for the economic impact of their innovations. The award showcases how well a public-private partnership can work. The research is not stopping at DNA analysis in criminal cases. Parabon is now developing models to use DNA to predict an individual’s lifetime risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Snapshot innovation puts DTRA in the mix of some innovative and transformative research and development by providing technology that can be used beyond the military and in the civilian world.

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