Associate professor of Forensic Studies Dr Dennis McNevin extracting DNA at the National Centre for Forensic Studies at the University of Canberra.

FACE OF THE FUTURE: Dr Dennis McNevin is part of a team developing DNA tests that can draw exact pictures of suspects. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Australian police and researchers are developing a ground-breaking test that will help them identify suspects based on the DNA evidence they leave behind.

It is set to change the way police use DNA evidence. Officers may soon be able to use a single strand of hair from a crime scene to pinpoint whether a suspect has a cleft chin, how many moles they have and whether or not they are bald.

The University of Canberra's Dennis McNevin is working on the four-year project set to finish at the end of next year and called ''From Genotype to Phenotype: Molecular Photofitting'', with Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. He said Australian police now used DNA evidence to link an existing suspect to a crime scene, but eventually research might lead to their using DNA to create photofit images of potential suspects.

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 DNA tests to determine hair and eye colour, but this new research was working towards pinpointing other distinctive features, including ear lobes attached to a person's face and their bio-geographic ancestry, and the team was already fairly confident in identifying male pattern baldness.

''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.

DNA testing could identify if a person was from a broadly European, Asian or African background and Dr McNevin said he hoped to add Oceanic, indigenous American and perhaps others to that list by the end of next year.

He said it would not be long before a DNA sample could be used to fairly accurately determine a person's bio-geographic ancestry, so in a case similar to the recent Boston Marathon bombings, a tiny sample might identify the suspects as, say, Chechen.

Queensland Institute of Medical Research scientists are examining the whole genome of individuals, using twin studies to find which pieces of DNA were associated with certain physical characteristics.

At the University of Canberra, researchers are using that information to develop predictive algorithms to determine the physical appearance of a person and to create a test that police could use in their laboratories.