Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, DNA as Documentation

Body parts are part of archives. A court case may include a mummified finger that was part of a damage claim. Strange circumstances can lead to an archives holding cremated remains until a suitable, dignified solution can be found. To be sure, these are unusual archival situations, but not unknown.

Now, however, as DNA testing has become routine in many parts of the world, archives are starting to hold both test results and samples—the part that comes from the body. The archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross holds DNA samples from Chile and is starting to take more from Lebanon.  Major forensic anthropology organizations, such as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, have large archival holdings of DNA samples and test records. For forensic purposes DNA is taken both from discovered remains and from family members of persons who have disappeared in the hope that someday remains will yield a match. For example, an area outside the city of Veracruz, Mexico, the remains of more than 250 people in 125 separate graves were discovered since excavations at the site began in the summer of 2016. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the killers had “routinely” removed “all traces of ID on their victims” so DNA is the best clue to their identities.  Officials are collecting DNA from relatives of the missing, and the first two sets of remains have been identified.

Forensics is perhaps the most famous use of DNA, but more DNA samples are taken and stored for medical reasons. The use of DNA and genetic testing is an issue so complex that a committee of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has just completed an examination of “how evidence is generated, evaluated, and summarized” and developed a framework for the evidence needed for evaluating the “validity and utility” of genetic tests.  DNA samples are useful for a burgeoning number of medical studies, but they also provide evidence of kinship. A large industry has now sprung up to allow people to find their “roots,” whether an adoptee trying to find a birth parent or a man who simply wants to know whether he should wear lederhosen or a kilt to a family reunion.

Storing DNA test samples and results is a long-term concern. With the rapid growth of the DNA “industry,” archivists will have to become involved in the issues of preservation and access. Managing DNA archives will require straddling investigatory and medical archives techniques.

But the most astonishing news about DNA and archives is this: researchers at the New York Genome Center and Colombia University have discovered they can encode digital documents on DNA. According to Science magazine, “DNA has the potential to provide large-capacity information storage.” The researchers say: “DNA is an attractive medium to store digital information. . . a storage strategy, called DNA Fountain . . is highly robust . . . Using our approach, we stored a full computer operating system, movie, and other files .   . in DNA oligonucleotides and perfectly retrieved the information.”  Could a future reference question be: “If I give you my cheek swab, could you store all my family photographs on my DNA?”