Key Questions on Nationality Testing

Below are some questions raised by the scientific criticism (original story) of the U.K. Border Agency’s Human Provenance program.

Q: How long has the Border Agency been working on this program?

A: The Agency hasn’t provided a history of the program’s development but it may date back several years. In 2007 statement from the Home Office, the group that oversees the Border Agency, an official noted: “With others, we are looking at the scientific and technical identification of nationality. This will be an important tool in a series of measures to improve the redocumentation and return of immigration offenders.” In a comment posted to a critical media account of that statement, an “Anonymous Coward” indicated that scientists had been recruited for the task. “I can confirm this - several researchers in statistical/population genetics, including me, were asked … a few months ago to advise on the feasibility of using DNA for determining nationality. We all refused to have anything to do with it on ethical and practical grounds.”

Q: What DNA markers are being tested?

A: That’s not clear. The Border Agency stakeholder letter notes mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA testing, and the “Nationality-swapping” document also notes testing of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are subtle genetic variations across all chromosomes. But neither document specifies how many DNA markers are being examined—the more studied, the better, typically, but scientists say even large numbers of markers cannot definitively pinpoint nationality as that’s a political, not genetic, description.

Q: What isotopes are being tested?

A: Again, that is not clear. The documents obtained by ScienceInsider don’t identify them, though the use of hair and nail samples suggests that the Border Agency will test for “lighter” isotopes—those of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulphur—that incorporate into soft tissues, rather than the heavier, metallic isotopes of strontium and lead that fix into bones and teeth. “As far as I know, there are no good studies of heavy isotopes in soft tissues,” says Tamsin O’Connell of the University of Cambridge, who conducts isotopic analyses of soft tissues. Which isotopes are examined is key because light isotopes typically reflect diet and climatic conditions; the heavier isotopes pinpoint geography better, although not to the extent of identifying nationality, say scientists.

Q: Hasn’t DNA testing been used before by immigration officials?

A: Well-accepted DNA fingerprinting techniques have been used to evaluate direct familial relationships, determining whether a person seeking asylum in a country has a relative there, for example, or confirming that all the members of an asylum-seeking family are related. Last year, DNA testing revealed widespread fraud among Africans petitioning to join family members in the United States, causing the U.S. State department to suspend the effort to promote those reunions. Such DNA identification, however, is considered far more reliable than deriving a person’s ancestry or ethnicity. Even then, France recently backed away from traditional DNA testing of immigrant families.

Q: What does Andrew Rennison think?

A: He’s the Forensic Science Regulator for the U.K. Home Office. Scientists say it is Rennison’s job to make sure any forensic techniques used by the Home Office have been properly vetted. The Home Office has not yet made Rennison or any scientists associated with the Human Provenance project available to comment. 

Q: What scientific justification is there for the Human Provenance Program?

A: The Border Agency documents reviewed by ScienceInsider cite no scientific literature but refer to the use of isotopic evidence to pinpoint the origin of a 2001 murder victim, whose dismembered torso was found in the Thames reviver, to a small area within West Africa. That evidence, however, has not been presented before a judge or described in a peer-reviewed scientific publication. As for the DNA testing, the Border Agency released a statement saying the project was working with “leading scientists in this field who have studied differences in the genetic backgrounds of various population groups” but it has not yet named those scientists or publicly cited their work.

Q: Who is conducting the isotope and DNA analyses?

A: That’s not been made public. The National Environment Research Council Isotope Geosciences Laboratory was commissioned to obtain heavy isotope measurements for the 2001 murder victim, but its head says the lab is not involved in this project. She and others suspect that commercial labs are conducting the tests, and they wonder about the reliability of those analyses and whether the scientific uncertainty involved in such tests are being conveyed properly to Border Agency officials.