Evolution in court: Forensic applications of molecular phylogenies


The last two decades have witnessed the widespread use of genetic testing in courtrooms to identify criminals from biological remains, determine paternity or identify corpses. Less is known, however, about expert reports based on the use of molecular phylogenies. Such reports are founded on studies into the common ancestry of organisms, usually bacteria or viruses, to trace them back to the source of infection. Such cases range from a Florida dentist who infected several of his patients with HIV, to a Spanish anaesthetist, Juan Maeso, who transmitted hepatitis C virus (HCV) to almost 300 patients. Evolutionary theory plays an essential role in resolving cases like these, and this article explains how and why evolutionary theory is pertinent.


common ancestor; virus; molecular clock; likelihood ratio; evolutionary hypotheses


Drummond, A. J.; Ho, S. Y. W.; Phillips, M. J. and A. Rambaut, 2006. «Relaxed Phylogenetics and Dating with Confidence». PLoS Biology, 4: e88. DOI: <10.1371/journal.pbio.0040088>.

Evett, I. W. and B. S. Weir, 1998. Interpreting DNA Evidence. Sinauer. Sunderland (USA).

González-Candelas, F.; Bracho, M. A.; Wróbel, B. and A. Moya, 2013. «Molecular Evolution in Court: Analysis of a Large Hepatitis C Virus Outbreak from an Evolving Source». BMC Biology, 11: 76. DOI: <10.1186/1741-7007-11-76>.

Metzker, M. L. et al., 2002. «Molecular Evidence of HIV-1 Transmission in a Criminal Case». Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) USA, 99: 14292-14297. DOI: <10.1073/pnas.222522599>.

Ou, C.Y. et al., 1992. «Molecular Epidemiology of HIV Transmission in a Dental Practice». Science, 256: 1165-1171. DOI: <10.1126/science.256.5060.1165>.

Zuckerkandl, E. and L. B. Pauling, 1962. «Molecular Disease, Evolution, and Genetic Heterogeneity». In Kasha, M. and B. Pullman (eds.). Horizons in Biochemistry. Academic Press. New York.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
Texts in the journal are –unless otherwise indicated– published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License