Project

VISAGE - Visible Attributes through Genomics

Goal: Unknown perpetrators of crime cannot be identified with the current forensic use of DNA. The VISAGE Project aims to overcome this major limitation by developing, validating, and implementing in the relevant forensic DNA service environment a set of prototype tools for predicting appearance, age, and ancestry in as much detail and as accurately, and effectively as possible from DNA traces. This VISAGE Toolkit will allow the construction of composite sketches of unknown trace donors directly from their crime scene traces, which will guide and focus criminal investigations towards finding them. The VISAGE Toolkit will include analysis prototype tools based on massively parallel sequencing for genotyping the large number of DNA predictors for appearance, age, and ancestry established within the Project, as well as an integrated statistical framework with prototype software for translating these genotype data into statistical probabilities on appearance, age and ancestry, which represents the intelligence information finally used for guiding criminal investigations towards the most probable group of suspects. The VISAGE Toolkit will consider ethical, societal, and legal dimensions of Forensic DNA Phenotyping as identified within the Project, by applying a privacy-by-design strategy. The interdisciplinary VISAGE Consortium includes European (and global) scientific leaders in Forensic DNA Phenotyping as well as in forensic massively parallel sequencing, leading European forensic DNA service providers, and one of the leading social scientists in the field of forensic DNA analysis, ensuring that the Project goals will be achieved on time. The outcome of the VISAGE Project will have a major impact on solving more crimes more rapidly by providing previously unused intelligence information from trace DNA to find unknown perpetrators, which will lead to reduced impact on victims, reduced societal distress, preventing miscarriages of justice, thereby avoiding unnecessary costs.

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Project log

Walther Parson
added a research item
Responding to the growing scientific and practical interest in forensic DNA phenotyping, the VISible Attributes through GEnomics (VISAGE) Consortium was founded in 2017 with the main goal of developing and validating new and reliable molecular and statistical tools to predict appearance, ancestry and age from DNA. Here, we describe the development and inter-laboratory evaluation and validation of the VISAGE Enhanced Tool for Appearance and Ancestry inference from DNA. The VISAGE Enhanced Tool for Appearance and Ancestry is the first forensic-driven genetic laboratory tool that comprises well-established markers for eye, hair and skin color with more recently discovered DNA markers for eyebrow color, freckling, hair shape and male pattern baldness and bio-geographic ancestry informative DNA markers. The bio-geographic ancestry markers include autosomal SNPs (bi- and tri-allelic SNPs), X-SNPs, Y-SNPs and autosomal Microhaplotypes. In total, primers targeting 524 SNPs (representing a 97.6% assay conversion rate) were successfully designed using AmpliSeq into a single primer pool (i.e., one multiplex assay) and sequenced with the Ion S5. In a collaborative framework, five VISAGE laboratories tested the VISAGE Enhanced Tool for Appearance and Ancestry on reproducibility, sensitivity, genotyping concordance, mixtures, species specificity and performance in relevant forensic conditions, including inhibitor-spiked, mock casework and artificially degraded samples. Based on our results, the VISAGE Enhanced Tool for Appearance and Ancestry is a robust, reproducible, and – for the large SNP number - fairly sensitive MPS assay with high concordance rates. With the VISAGE Enhanced Tool for Appearance and Ancestry introduced here, the VISAGE Consortium delivers the first single DNA-test for combined appearance prediction based on seven traits together with bio-geographic ancestry inference based on major continental regions for separated bi-parental and paternal ancestry, which represents the most comprehensive validated laboratory tool currently available for Forensic DNA Phenotyping.
Walther Parson
added a research item
The possibility of providing investigative leads when conventional DNA identification methods fail to solve a case can be of extreme relevance to law enforcement. Therefore, the forensic genetics community has focused research towards the broadened use of DNA, particularly for prediction of appearance traits, bio-geographical ancestry and age. The VISible Attributes through GEnomics (VISAGE) Consortium expanded the use of DNA phenotyping by developing new molecular and statistical tools for appearance, age and ancestry prediction. The VISAGE basic tool for appearance (EVC) and ancestry (BGA) prediction was initially developed using Ampliseq chemistry, but here is being evaluated using ForenSeq chemistry. The VISAGE basic tool offers a total of 41 EVC and 115 BGA SNPs and thus provides more predictions, i.e., skin color, than achieved with the ForenSeq DNA Signature Prep kit that is based on 24 EVC and 56 BGA SNPs. Five VISAGE laboratories participated in collaborative experiments to provide foreground for developmental validation of the assay. Assessment of assay performance and quality metrics, reproducibility, sensitivity, inhibitor tolerance and species specificity are described. Furthermore, the assay was tested using challenging samples such as mock casework samples and artificially degraded DNA. Two different analysis strategies were applied for this study and output on genotype calls and read depth was compared. Overall, inter-laboratory, inter-method and concordance with publicly available data were analysed and compared. Finally, the results showed a reliable and robust tool, which can be easily applied for laboratories already using a MiSeq FGx with ForenSeq reagents.
Walther Parson
added 2 research items
The development of microhaplotype (MH) panels for massively parallel sequencing (MPS) platforms is gaining increasing relevance for forensic analysis. Here, we expand the applicability of a 102 autosomal and 11 X-chromosome panel of MHs, previously validated with both MiSeq and Ion S5 MPS platforms and designed for identification purposes. We have broadened reference population data for identification purposes, including data from 240 HGDP-CEPH individuals of native populations from North Africa, the Middle East, Oceania and America. Using the enhanced population data, the panel was evaluated as a marker set for bio-geographical ancestry (BGA) inference, providing a clear differentiation of the five main continental groups of Africa, Europe, East Asia, Native America, and Oceania. An informative degree of differentiation was also achieved for the population variation encompassing North Africa, Middle East, Europe, South Asia, and East Asia. In addition, we explored the potential for individual BGA inference from simple mixed DNA, by simulation of mixed profiles followed by deconvolution of mixture components.
DNA methylation is known as a biomarker for age with applications in forensics. Here we describe the VISAGE (VISible Attributes through GEnomics) Consortium's enhanced tool for epigenetic age estimation in somatic tissues. The tool is based on eight DNA methylation markers (44 CpGs), bisulfite multiplex PCR followed by sequencing on the MiSeq FGx platform, and three statistical prediction models for blood, buccal cells and bones. The model for blood is based on six CpGs from ELOVL2, MIR29B2CHG, KLF14, FHL2, TRIM59 and PDE4C, and predicts age with a mean absolute error (MAE) of 3.2 years, while the model for buccal cells includes five CpGs from PDE4C, MIR29B2CHG, ELOVL2, KLF14 and EDARADD and predicts age with MAE of 3.7 years, and the model for bones has six CpGs from ELOVL2, KLF14, PDE4C and ASPA and predicts age with MAE of 3.4 years. The VISAGE enhanced tool for age estimation in somatic tissues enables reliable collection of DNA methylation data from small amounts of DNA using a sensitive multiplex MPS assay that provides accurate estimation of age in blood, buccal swabs, and bones using the statistical model tailored to each tissue.
Walther Parson
added 3 research items
Forensic DNA phenotyping is gaining interest as the number of applications increases within the forensic genetics community. The possibility of providing investigative leads in addition to conventional DNA profiling for human identification provides new insights into otherwise “cold” police investigations. The ability of reporting on the bio-geographical ancestry (BGA), appearance characteristics and age based on DNA obtained from a crime scene sample of an unknown donor makes the exploration of such markers and the development of new methods meaningful for criminal investigations. The VISible Attributes through GEnomics (VISAGE) Consortium aims to disseminate and broaden the use of predictive markers and develop fully optimized and validated prototypes for forensic casework implementation. Here, the first VISAGE appearance and ancestry tool development, performance and validation is reported. A total of 153 SNPs (96.84% assay conversion rate) were successfully incorporated into a single multiplex reaction using the AmpliSeq™ design pipeline, and applied for massively parallel sequencing with the Ion S5 platform. A collaborative effort involving six VISAGE laboratory partners was devised to perform all validation tests. An extensive validation plan was carefully organized to explore the assay’s overall performance with optimum and low-input samples, as well as with challenging and casework mock samples. In addition, forensic validation studies such as concordance and mixture tests recurring to the Coriell sample set with known genotypes were performed. Finally, inhibitor tolerance and specificity were also evaluated. Results showed a robust, highly sensitive assay with good overall concordance between laboratories.
The VISAGE (VISible Attributes through GEnomics) consortium aims to develop, optimize and validate prototype tools to broaden the use of DNA intelligence methods in forensic routine laboratories. This includes age estimation based on the quantification of DNA methylation at specific CpG sites. Here, we present the VISAGE basic prototype tool for age estimation targeting 32 CpGs from five genes ELOVL2, MIR29B2C, FHL2, TRIM59 and KLF14. The assay interrogates these well described age markers by multiplex PCR for bisulfite converted DNA and massively parallel sequencing on a MiSeq FGx instrument. We describe protocol optimizations including tests on five bisulfite conversion kits and an evaluation of the assay’s reproducibility and sensitivity with artificially methylated DNA standards. We observed robust quantification of methylation levels with a mean standard deviation of 1.4% across ratios. Sensitivity tests showed no increase of variability down to 20 ng DNA input into bisulfite conversion with a median difference below 1.6% between technical replicates.
The study of DNA to predict externally visible characteristics (EVCs) and the biogeographical ancestry (BGA) from unknown samples is gaining relevance in forensic genetics. Technical developments in Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS) enable the simultaneous analysis of hundreds of DNA markers, which improves successful Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP). The EU-funded VISAGE (VISible Attributes through GEnomics) Consortium has developed various targeted MPS-based lab tools to apply FDP in routine forensic analyses. Here, we present an evaluation of the VISAGE Basic tool for appearance and ancestry prediction based on PowerSeq chemistry (Promega) on a MiSeq FGx System (Illumina). The panel consists of 153 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that provide information about EVCs (41 SNPs for eye, hair and skin color from HIrisPlex-S) and continental BGA (115 SNPs; three overlap with the EVCs SNP set). The assay was evaluated for sensitivity, repeatability and genotyping concordance, as well as its performance with casework-type samples. This targeted MPS assay provided complete genotypes at all 153 SNPs down to 125 pg of input DNA and 99.67% correct genotypes at 50 pg. It was robust in terms of repeatability and concordance and provided useful results with casework-type samples. The results suggest that this MPS assay is a useful tool for basic appearance and ancestry prediction in forensic genetics for users interested in applying PowerSeq chemistry and MiSeq for this purpose.
Barbara Prainsack
added a research item
Background: Persons whose identifying DNA profile (STR profile) is not yet known to the ingvestigating authorities cannot be identified by standard forensic DNA analysis (STR profiling) as it is now practiced. In view of the current public debate, particularly in Germany, on the legalization of so-called forensic DNA phenotyping, we present its scientific basis, societal aspects, and forensic applications and describe the analytic techniques that are now available. Methods: This review is based on pertinent publications that were retrieved by a selective search in PubMed and in public media, and on the authors' own research. Results: Forensically validated DNA test systems are available for the categorization of eye, hair, and skin color and the inference of continental biogeographic ancestry. As for statistical measures of test accuracy, the AUC (area under the curve) values lie in the range 0.74-0.99 for eye color, 0.64-0.94 for hair color, and 0.72-0.99 for skin color, depending on the predictive model and color category used.The corre- sponding positive predictive values (PPV) are lower. Empirical social-scientific research on forensic DNA phenotyping has shown that preserving privacy and protecting against discrimination are major ethical and regulatory considerations. Conclusion: All three methods of forensic DNA phenotyping-the predition of exter- nally visible characteristics, biogeographic ancestry, and the estimation of age from crime scene DNA-require a proper regulatory framework and should be used in conjunction with each other. Before forensic DNA phenotyping can be implemented in forensic practice, steps must be taken to minimize the risks of violation of privacy scrimination and to ensure that these methods are used transpar- ently and proportionately.
Michael Nothnagel
added 2 research items
DNA-based prediction of externally visible characteristics has become an established approach in forensic genetics, with the aim of tracing individuals who are potentially unknown to the investigating authorities but without using this prediction as evidence in court. While a number of prediction models have been proposed, use of prior probabilities in those models has largely been absent. Here, we aim at compiling information on the spatial distribution of eye and hair coloration in order to use this as prior knowledge to improve prediction accuracy. To this end, we conducted a detailed literature review and created maps showing the eye and hair pigmentation prevalence both by countries with available information and by interpolation in order to obtain prior estimates for populations without available data. Furthermore, we assessed the association between these two traits in a very large data set. A strong limitation was the quite low amount of available data, especially outside Europe. We hope that our results will facilitate the improvement of already existing and of novel prediction methods for pigmentation traits and induce further studies on the spatial distribution of these traits.
Walther Parson
added a research item
Human head hair shape, commonly classified as straight, wavy, curly or frizzy, is an attractive target for Forensic DNA Phenotyping and other applications of human appearance prediction from DNA such as in paleogenetics. The genetic knowledge underlying head hair shape variation was recently improved by the outcome of a series of genome-wide association and replication studies in a total of 26,964 subjects, highlighting 12 loci of which 8 were novel and introducing a prediction model for Europeans based on 14 SNPs. In the present study, we evaluated the capacity of DNA-based head hair shape prediction by investigating an extended set of candidate SNP predictors and by using an independent set of samples for model validation. Prediction model building was carried out in 9674 subjects (6068 from Europe, 2899 from Asia and 707 of admixed European and Asian ancestries), used previously, by considering a novel list of 90 candidate SNPs. For model validation, genotype and phenotype data were newly collected in 2415 independent subjects (2138 Europeans and 277 non-Europeans) by applying two targeted massively parallel sequencing platforms, Ion Torrent PGM and MiSeq, or the MassARRAY platform. A binomial model was developed to predict straight vs. non-straight hair based on 32 SNPs from 26 genetic loci we identified as significantly contributing to the model. This model achieved prediction accuracies, expressed as AUC, of 0.664 in Europeans and 0.789 in non-Europeans; the statistically significant difference was explained mostly by the effect of one EDAR SNP in non-Europeans. Considering sex and age, in addition to the SNPs, slightly and insignificantly increased the prediction accuracies (AUC of 0.680 and 0.800, respectively). Based on the sample size and candidate DNA markers investigated, this study provides the most robust, validated, and accurate statistical prediction models and SNP predictor marker sets currently available for predicting head hair shape from DNA, providing the next step towards broadening Forensic DNA Phenotyping beyond pigmentation traits.
Walther Parson
added 2 research items
Due to its support of law enforcement, forensics is a conservative field; nevertheless, driven by scientific and technological progress, forensic genetics is slowly transitioning into forensic genomics. With this Special Issue of Genes we acknowledge and appreciate this rather recent development by not only introducing the field of forensics to the wider community of geneticists, but we do so by emphasizing on different topics of forensic relevance where genomic, transcriptomic, and epigenomic principles, methods, and datasets of humans and beyond are beginning to be used to answer forensic questions.
Forensic genetics developed from protein-based techniques a quarter of a century ago and became famous as "DNA fingerprinting," this being based on restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) of high-molecular-weight DNA. The amplification of much smaller short tandem repeat (STR) sequences using the polymerase chain reaction soon replaced RFLP analysis and advanced to become the gold standard in genetic identification. Meanwhile, STR multiplexes have been developed and made commercially available which simultaneously amplify up to 30 STR loci from as little as 15 cells or fewer. The enormous information content that comes with the large variety of observed STR genotypes allows for genetic individualisation (with the exception of identical twins). Carefully selected core STR loci form the basis of intelligence-led DNA databases that provide investigative leads by linking unsolved crime scenes and criminals through their matched STR profiles. Nevertheless, the success of modern DNA fingerprinting depends on the availability of reference material from suspects. In order to provide new investigative leads in cases where such reference samples are absent, forensic scientists started to explore the prediction of phenotypic traits from the DNA of the evidentiary sample. This paradigm change now uses DNA and epigenetic markers to forecast characteristics that are useful to triage further investigative work. So far, the best investigated externally visible characteristics are eye, hair and skin colour, as well as geographic ancestry and age. Information on the chronological age of a stain donor (or any sample donor) is elemental for forensic investigations in a number of aspects and has, therefore, been explored by researchers in some detail. Among different methodological approaches tested to date, the methylation-sensitive analysis of carefully selected DNA markers (CpG sites) has brought the most promising results by providing prediction accuracies of ±3-4 years, which can be comparable to, or even surpass those from, eyewitness reports. This mini-review puts recent developments in age estimation via (epi)genetic methods in the context of the requirements and goals of forensic genetics and highlights paths to follow in the future of forensic genomics.
Walther Parson
added an update
Shape variation of human head hair shows striking variation within and between human populations, while its genetic basis is far from being understood. We performed a series of genome-wide association studies (GWASs) and replication studies in a total of 28 964 subjects from 9 cohorts from multiple geographic origins. A meta-analysis of three European GWASs identified 8 novel loci (1p36.23 ERRFI1/SLC45A1, 1p36.22 PEX14, 1p36.13 PADI3, 2p13.3 TGFA, 11p14.1 LGR4, 12q13.13 HOXC13, 17q21.2 KRTAP, and 20q13.33 PTK6), and confirmed 4 previously known ones (1q21.3 TCHH/TCHHL1/LCE3E, 2q35 WNT10A, 4q21.21 FRAS1, and 10p14 LINC00708/GATA3), all showing genome-wide significant association with hair shape (P < 5e-8). All except one (1p36.22 PEX14) were replicated with nominal significance in at least one of the 6 additional cohorts of European, Native American and East Asian origins. Three additional previously known genes (EDAR, OFCC1, and PRSS53) were confirmed at the nominal significance level. A multivariable regression model revealed that 14 SNPs from different genes significantly and independently contribute to hair shape variation, reaching a cross-validated AUC value of 0.66 (95% CI: 0.62–0.70) and an AUC value of 0.64 in an independent validation cohort, providing an improved accuracy compared with a previous model. Prediction outcomes of 2504 individuals from a multiethnic sample were largely consistent with general knowledge on the global distribution of hair shape variation. Our study thus delivers target genes and DNA variants for future functional studies to further evaluate the molecular basis of hair shape in humans.
 
Walther Parson
added an update
In March 2017, we published an original research paper in Forensic Science International: Genetics about the use of conditional probabilities in Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP) [1]. We highlighted that the relationship between the predictive values of FDP and the prevalence of the investigated appearance phenotype depends upon (i) the extent to which causal factors (genetic and environmental) of the phenotype are accounted for by the prediction model used, and (ii) the degree of inter-population variability, if any, of the remaining causal factors.
 
Walther Parson
added an update
Please visit our homepage http://www.visage-h2020.eu/
 
Walther Parson
added an update
Welcome to VISAGE!
 
Walther Parson
added a project goal
Unknown perpetrators of crime cannot be identified with the current forensic use of DNA. The VISAGE Project aims to
overcome this major limitation by developing, validating, and implementing in the relevant forensic DNA service environment
a set of prototype tools for predicting appearance, age, and ancestry in as much detail and as accurately, and effectively as
possible from DNA traces. This VISAGE Toolkit will allow the construction of composite sketches of unknown trace donors
directly from their crime scene traces, which will guide and focus criminal investigations towards finding them. The VISAGE
Toolkit will include analysis prototype tools based on massively parallel sequencing for genotyping the large number of DNA
predictors for appearance, age, and ancestry established within the Project, as well as an integrated statistical framework
with prototype software for translating these genotype data into statistical probabilities on appearance, age and ancestry,
which represents the intelligence information finally used for guiding criminal investigations towards the most probable group
of suspects. The VISAGE Toolkit will consider ethical, societal, and legal dimensions of Forensic DNA Phenotyping as
identified within the Project, by applying a privacy-by-design strategy. The interdisciplinary VISAGE Consortium includes
European (and global) scientific leaders in Forensic DNA Phenotyping as well as in forensic massively parallel sequencing,
leading European forensic DNA service providers, and one of the leading social scientists in the field of forensic DNA
analysis, ensuring that the Project goals will be achieved on time. The outcome of the VISAGE Project will have a major
impact on solving more crimes more rapidly by providing previously unused intelligence information from trace DNA to find
unknown perpetrators, which will lead to reduced impact on victims, reduced societal distress, preventing miscarriages of
justice, thereby avoiding unnecessary costs.