Behind the Numbers: Jim Bentley
Jim Bentley, DNA Frontiersman
(Part Three of a Series)
We interviewed one of Chromosomal Labs Bode Technology’s senior staff members, Director of Sales and Marketing Jim Bentley, to get his perspective on industry changes over the past thirty-five-plus years.
When did you first get interested in DNA?
JB: I’ll have to preface my answer with a few remarks on “the early days.” When I graduated from Arizona State University in the 1970s, DNA testing as we know it, was not really a field that was in existence. There was not a lot going on. The little work I did with chromosomes was using electron microscopy. I worked in the biochemistry department, however and performed hundreds of assays using poly-acrylamide gel electrophoresis, mainly for separation of proteins. This technique, although improved and streamlined remains in use today for DNA-STR separation. The field we’re in today where we can determine a person’s profile and compare it with others for forensics for relationships, ancestry, missing persons, adoptions and the like, that technology hadn’t been developed yet. It wasn’t quite as easy as it is today.
Tell us more about the evolution of DNA testing.
JB: It basically began with blood groups and types. The first paternity test was done in a court case with Charlie Chaplin in the 1940s. He was excluded as the father, but the court said he could go ahead and pay child support anyway—probably, because he could afford it. Since that time, scientists started moving past groups and types into some other techniques. Human Leukocyte Testing (HLA), DQ-Alpha, and Restriction Enzyme STR testing (RFLP) are examples of the evolution of DNA testing.
The big breakthrough came when Dr. Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester discovered STR testing in England the late 1980s. He used STR profiling on the Colin Pitchfork case. Colin Pitchfork became the first criminal convicted on the basis of DNA evidence and as a result of a mass DNA screening operation. He was charged with raping and murdering two teenage girls. Since that time the forensic community has really refined the techniques to perform STR testing. They’ve made it simpler and more accurate. It’s really moved exponentially in the last twenty years. Today competent biologists and chemists can produce excellent results, every time. Dr. Jeffreys has been knighted for his contributions.
So what got you involved?
JB: I came out of college as a chemist, one interested in the medical field. I started out working in clinical chemistry and toxicology. The work we did with DNA was extremely limited and very costly. But I did stick with a career in clinical chemistry. Within four years after graduating from school I was managing a clinical laboratory in Houston, Texas called National Health Laboratories. It was a laboratory of about one hundred scientists and support staff. After mergers, acquisitions and such, that company remains as Lab Corp. (It performs more than 1 million tests on more than 370,000 specimens each day.)
What opportunities for professional growth did you have over the years?
JB: Through taking a lot of continuing education coursework, I became proficient and qualified as a general supervisor in clinical chemistry, toxicology, hematology, parasitology, microbiology, serology—everything except for tissue work like histology and cytology, which was done by certified medical experts in those specialties. My interests kept me in touch with the staff pathologists, however, as well as all the rest of the laboratory. Though my present-day field did not exist at the time I graduated, by staying current I was able to benefit from the changes and be part of an emerging valuable service provided not only to the medical community but also to the forensic one, and the general population at large.
What are some famous cases you’ve been involved with . . . that you can talk about?
JB: Actually, that’s my problem. We’ve been involved in a number of high-profile cases, but we’re not allowed to talk about any of them. Most have been on the forensic side, serial killer trials in Arizona, also in California, some that made the news in Florida . . Texas . . .Georgia.
Were you involved in catching the Grim Sleeper?
JB: Actually, that’s an ongoing case in Los Angeles we are familiar with, but we didn’t do the work on it, so we can talk about that one. The importance of the Grim Sleeper case has to do with familial testing and autosomal DNA. It was termed the Grim Sleeper case because there were a number of homicides that took place beginning in the mid-1980s, all with the same basic MO [modus operandi], and then the murderer went underground for fourteen years. The victims were typically prostitutes shot with a firearm. In 2010, a suspect, Lonnie David Franklin Jr., 57, was arrested and charged with multiple counts of murder. He has not yet been convicted, nor the evidence against him tested in court.
How was DNA used to catch him?
JB: So here were a number of cold cases, but they were being tracked, and the law enforcement authorities in Los Angeles continued to monitor progress. The sole survivor of one of the Grim Sleeper’s attacks furnished a description of him as a black man in his 30s, along with other details. According to her story in the press, he lured her into an orange Ford Pinto, shot her in the chest with a pistol, took Polaroid’s and raped her, leaving her for dead. In 2008, the body count was thirteen, and a $500,000 reward was put out for “America’s Most Wanted.”
It became the first use in California, and one of the first three cases in the United States, of the use of familial DNA searching, that is, using the FBI’s CODIS database to match one family member’s profile with a suspect’s profile. The LA police were able to provide a close partial match to Franklin’s crime scene profile with that of his son, whose CODIS markers were on file for a minor crime. They then set up a kind of mini-sting operation at a pizza parlor in Buena Park, where they knew the family liked to eat. Undercover detectives masqueraded as waiters and busboys. When the family left, they whisked away an unfinished pizza slice. The crust yielded DNA which police linked on a more solid basis to Lonnie Franklin. It was the first high-profile case in which a family member’s DNA had been used to catch a criminal. The ACLU and others had been critical of familial searching on grounds of privacy, and there is still a lot of debate over familiar searching because it might open up the search and include those who hadn’t committed any crime.
Did this help produce new commercial products like the “cousin finders”?
Only a few states are doing familial searching, and they are pretty guarded about it. It’s hard for me to make a connection. Certainly, these developments have been concentrated in the past three or four years, but the use of this technique is spreading.
Are people legitimately suspicious about DNA databases?
JB: Fears surface from time to time. There have been claims that keep popping up that someone’s going to take everything that’s in the database and use it to determine genetic deficiencies that could lead to medical issues down the road. Once it was speculated that if such information was released, insurance companies would begin denying people coverage based on their profiles.
This is the mother of conspiracy theories, isn’t it?
JB: It really is. For the most part—not for everyone—the vast majority of the markers we are using are in the “junk DNA” area. That is, they don’t by themselves “do” anything or give you genetic information on the face of things. There may be one or two markers that possibly could be construed as yielding some medical information—such as a trisomy at vWA or TPOX [a CODIS locus]. But by and large, you are not going to be able to do any medical diagnostics with the markers we run. Usually trisomies such as Down’s syndrome would be physically expressed and not hidden. It’s a little different with SNP panels [single nucleotide polymorphisms] such as those run by 23&me. With a high number of those, it’s entirely possible to predict medical predisposition. That’s what they base their business on.
Let’s talk some more about the CODIS database.
JB: It’s important to realize that even law enforcement doesn’t provide much access to the CODIS [Combined DNA Identification System] databank. That’s something I have to give the FBI credit for. They have developed a system that is secure. It’s the DNA administrator at each facility who has undergone FBI training and uploads the data under very strict rules, and they are notified of any “hits” that involve them, but otherwise there is very little access, and the use of the database is very even across the country. There are not a large number of portals that can be used to access the CODIS database. There are several hundred law enforcement laboratories that are running profiles across the country, and the database is best thought about on three different levels: LDIS, SDIS and NDIS, local, state and national versions. Between our labs in Phoenix and Virginia, we’ve tested over a million profiles for entry into CODIS. That’s about one-tenth of the entire number. I can tell you there is tight security. Hundreds of thousands of investigations have been aided by a DNA hit (we don’t like to say “match” so much, because statistically nothing is 100%) generating a lead.
How did you get bitten by the genealogy bug?
JB: I’ve always been fascinated with ancestry. I think it came about because my father took an interest in discovering our family’s roots and had to do so at the time by traveling to Salt Lake City, Utah, and poring over whatever records he could find there about our fathers, and great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers, and so forth. He had tintypes of some of the relatives. We had various pieces of the puzzle. My father pretty much consolidated everything back to William Bentley, who settled in Rhode Island in the early 1700s and had come from Bedfordshire, England. He put together a book for family use. He glorified a few of them and left a few out that weren’t ready for glorification. For the sensitivity of some of the relatives, he left a few details out, but it was a pretty solid piece of work. For me, it kind of fostered this interest in ancestry and its importance. Certainly, when I started at Chromosomal Labs • Bode Technology, we started looking at the various tools that could be used. Our history, to be sure, is passed down from generation to generation. Initially, we were using mitochondrial DNA, Y-SNP’s and Y-STRs and then autosomal STRs to determine how we’re connected to general and specific individuals back to the Revolutionary War days and how you are linked with the world population, what your roots were. I have a particular Y haplogroup of G2a, which is not one of the more common ones.
Hmm . . . you and Joseph Stalin.
JB: [Laughs]. Is that what his haplogroup was? Uh-oh! He was one of the worst. Well, I got interested in G2a and hooked up with about 50 other Bentleys and we identified our founder patriarch haplotype. I get emails from them on a regular basis. The other thing we tried to find out was what in the world were all these G2a’s doing in England. I don’t know. But one of the things I find in the literature most often was that the Sarmatians were horsemen that gave the Romans a pretty rough time. Eventually, they were decimated. The Romans took their remaining cavalry and pressed them into service for 12 to 13 years or longer. Some were dispatched to Hadrian’s Wall. Now do I know for a hundred percent certainty that’s where I came from? No, but its fun to regard that as a hypothetical personal history.
You have a Scythian gene, don’t you?
JB: Yes, I do according to the analysis DNA Consultants did for my autosomal ancestry. The work Dr. Yates has done on the rare alleles supports a lot of the stuff the family has been putting together for years and years. I was very pleased to get my Rare Genes from History report back showing I had the Scythian gene. That seems to go along with the Sarmatian theory about the Bentleys.
How do you see the industry changing over the next few years?
JB: I can speak best about changes I am seeing in the field. They’re getting closer to having rapid DNA testing on a chip. This gives flexibility to those who want to use DNA as “point of use” testing. The FBI this past year came out at the Promega conference and said that within the next two years they would like to see wide adoption of “point of use” testing. The IntegenX prototype allows you to put your swab into a cartridge, insert it into the instrument on the fly and get your STR results in a few hours. Previously, Rapid DNA testing was not only time-consuming and lab-bound but it was very expensive. It cost several hundred dollars in reagents alone. As the technology improves to allow 2 hour testing in our lab or on a chip, reagent and personnel time continue to drop, Now, the FBI would like to see point of use testing in every booking station in the country. At the last show, I also saw an instrument from Illumina that would run Y-STRs, mtDNA and autosomal DNA profiles simultaneously on one sample. Another change that is coming is we will see an expanded profile becoming the standard, perhaps something similar to the GlobalFiler kit from Life Technologies with its 24 loci. With the new technology you can increase the speed for amplifying the specimen by five times and achieve nine times the discriminating power or resolution.
Any final remarks?
JB: The DNA testing field is on the threshold of even greater accolades of appreciation both from the scientific community and the public. If DNA wasn’t even in anyone’s mind twenty years ago, soon it will be part of everyone’s daily lives.
Sir Alec Jeffreys, inventor of DNA fingerprinting, and Jim Bentley at forensics meeting.