Police could soon use DNA from a single stray hair from a crime scene to determine whether a suspect is bald, has a cleft chin, or skin covered in moles.
University of Canberra researcher Dennis McNevin said new techniques being developed could lead to police using DNA to create photofit images of suspects.
''There are situations commonly encountered where there are no suspects, or there is a very large pool of suspects, and it becomes unfeasible to collect a reference DNA sample from what could be hundreds of different suspects … this is where we might want to collect intelligence value from that DNA,'' he said.
Dr McNevin is working on the four-year project, set to finish at the end of next year, called From Genotype to Phenotype: Molecular Photofitting, in collaboration with the Australian Federal Police, the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, and Victoria Police.
Victoria Police forensic officer Runa Daniel, who is working on the project with her colleague Roland van Oorschot, said the research could be used in the absence of other leads or to supplement eyewitness statements. ''DNA phenotyping may provide more accurate information on some characteristics and could be used to direct valuable police and forensic resources in the primary and critical stages of an investigation, particularly when traditional DNA profiling techniques have not been informative,'' she said.
Dr McNevin said there were already DNA tests, not currently used in Australia, to determine hair and eye colour, but this new research was working towards pinpointing other distinctive features, such as ear lobes, and a person's bio-geographic ancestry. The team was already fairly confident in identifying male pattern baldness.
DNA testing could identify if a person was from a broadly European, Asian or African background. Dr McNevin said he hoped to add Oceanic, indigenous American and perhaps others to that list by the end of next year.
Dr McNevin said it would not be long before a DNA sample could be used to fairly accurately determine a person's geographic ancestry. If these techniques had been available at the time of the Boston marathon bombings, a tiny sample may have identified the suspects as Chechen.