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The DNA cracker: closing the book on Jack

This man could have revealed the surname of the Yorkshire Ripper long before Peter Sutcliffe was a suspect. How? He explains all to Rob Sharp

The mellifluous sound of pan pipes is pumped into a private apartment in Wolfson College, Oxford. Here, Professor Bryan Sykes, one of the world's leading genetics experts, explains why he began investigating people's family trees.

"Funnily enough, for most of the early part of my career I was doing research in inherited diseases of the skeleton," he says. "I deliberately set out to do something entirely useless."

In spite of his "best attempts" at a dead-end career, Sykes' working life has been long and prolific: when there has been a major discovery about how DNA relates to people's lineage, he has often been behind it. In 1989, he reported on the recovery of DNA from bones found in archaeological digs (reported in the journal Nature). A decade later, he claimed that 97 per cent of modern Europeans are descended from, amazingly, just seven women.

In 2000, he founded Oxford Ancestors, the world's first company offering the public the chance to trace their ancestral roots through DNA analysis, and published the bestselling The Seven Daughters of Eve the following year.

Sykes' techniques primarily involve using people's Y-chromosomes – "packages" of DNA that only men carry. Y-chromosomes are passed from father to father. The chromosomes have a "fingerprint", defined by the order of molecules. Sykes was the first to prove, by isolating and identifying such fingerprints, that people with the same surnames are related. This is not as obvious as it sounds – researchers felt that marital infidelity had blurred such links.

Sykes' research is not just a matter of curiosity. He is in talks with the Government over implementing a trial scheme that could potentially identify murderers' surnames from crime-scene DNA. He believes 70 rapes and murders in Britain could be solved every year this way.

With the backing of colleagues at Leicester University, he hopes the Government will build a DNA database, cross-referencing samples against the surnames of donors.

In an expensive-looking suit (this is no impoverished academic), the professor runs through possible uses of the database, including paternity tests carried out without the fathers' knowledge. He talks of brazen British journalists who repeatedly approached him with the promise of getting hold of strands of Prince Harry's hair. "I wouldn't do that. One of the rules of DNA sampling is that you have to have informed consent from one of the people the sample is from," he says.

In the 1980s, Sykes' career shifted from medical doctor to work normally associated with genealogists. "We were analysing large families, and found it was common to discover children who could not – due to the genetics – be the children of the people involved," he says. "We talked about the idea of whether people who have the same name have the same Y-chromosome. But we thought, 'Of course they won't,' because illegitimacy must have been greater in the past."

If Y-chromosomes were "spread" through infidelity and sons born out of wedlock, it would cause diversity in surnames attached to specific Y-chromosomes, he explained. Scientific thought at the time suggested that such infidelities over time would ultimately mean little linkage between Y-chromosomes and surnames. However, by tracing his relationship to another prominent academic – Sir Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial College – Bryan Sykes deduced that this was not the case.

"Richard and myself were genetically related," he says. He met the other Sykeses at a conference, and decided to test his theories. "Of the other Sykeses that exist, 70 per cent have the same Y-chromosome." The infidelity rate to get this result was 1.3 per cent per generation, which is lower than levels seen today.

This led him to consider the potential impact of Y-chromosome and surname linkage to crime scenes. Sykes believes that the police could take DNA from a crime scene and solve crimes by cross-referencing it with a database of Y-chromosomes from men of known surnames.

"What we are trying to persuade the Home Office to do is sponsor a large-scale trial," Sykes says. "It wouldn't work every time; for example, with the surname Smith there would be all sorts of associated Y-chromosomes. But, apart from that, once you found the DNA at the scene of a crime you would correlate that with the surnames on the database and you might come up with a list of 30 names. Obviously you would be given a big leg-up in your investigations." He adds: "I always think: how much quicker would the Yorkshire Ripper have been caught if they had known his surname was Sutcliffe?"

Much of this research has been carried out in association with Professor Mark Jobling of the University of Leicester's genetics department. Jobling says: "It seems to me that every year there are a large number of unsolved rapes and murders. This is a technique that promises to assist those investigations. When cases have a pool of suspects this could be invaluable."

Both Sykes and Jobling stress that the technique would most likely be used to reduce the size of a pool of suspects rather than provide evidence to be used in a court of law. Sykes adds: "Also, many of these cases are perpetrated by people who have no criminal record. But it could help the officers involved to ask people for help in their inquiries." Sykes cites the example of a 15-year-old boy in the US who was conceived via a sperm donation. He used his own Y-chromosome and cross-referenced it against a database, that does, unlike the UK, link Y-chromosomes to surnames. He discovered his father's name and managed to track him down.

Sykes is now using Y-chromosome analysis to reconcile families from different countries where there was previously not conclusive proof that the two groups were related. He's currently inviting members of the British "Learmonth" family and the Russian "Lermontovs" to get in touch for research.

Members of the former clan include the entrepreneur and founder of the Crussh Juice Bar chain, James Learmond, and Variety's New York correspondent, Michael Learmonth. Famous people with the latter surname include Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, the 19th-century poet who was friends with the great Alexander Pushkin.

"Genealogists are finding out new things about the Y-chromosome that we didn't know before, and there aren't many branches of academic science that do that," Sykes says. "I can only think of astronomy where new comets are discovered by old buffers in their garden with binoculars... or maybe ornithology. As an academic, it is nice to see your work continued by hundreds of thousands of people."

Details on Oxford Ancestors can be found at

You can't escape your genes

By Mary Morgan

The first criminal caught by DNA testing was Colin Pitchfork in 1987. The Leicester banker was found guilty of the murder of two 15-year-old girls in 1983 and 1986. In the world's first DNA screening programme, 5,000 men gave blood and saliva samples. Pitchfork's matched.

DNA famously linked OJ Simpson to the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The case highlighted difficulties of DNA evidence as the defence questioned methods and procedures.

In 2003, Jeffrey Gafoor pleaded guilty to the murder of Lynette White in 1988. Fresh DNA evidence had produced 600 near-matches on the national UK database. One was with Gafoor's 14-year-old nephew. It was the first case of an innocent relative being used to identify the criminal.

DNA evidence was eventually crucial in the case of the killing of Damilola Taylor, 10, stabbed in Peckham in November 2000. In August 2006, two brothers were convicted of manslaughter.

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