Is an Epigenetic Clock the Key to Asylum?

A transcript of BBC World Service Radio’s Newsday interview with Keith Booher, PhD, of Zymo Research Corporation about their DNAge® test being used to determine the age of refugees seeking asylum in Europe as minors.

BBC: Could a finger prick test for blood make it easier for child refugees to have their age verified? That’s a question that California scientists have been thinking about. The field is known as Epigenetics and the test involves examining chemically modified DNA to create a sense of how old someone actually is. Keith Booher is a scientist in California and he has been part of the development of this device.

Booher: What we’re simply trying to do is to make an age determination or quantify aging. For example, in forensics cases when the provenance or age of a sample is unknown, we can make that assessment. There’s also some indications that it may be useful for biologically aging someone – so they may have been born 45 years ago, and are 45 years old but based on certain life decision they make – the diet they choose to eat, if they get enough exercise, do they live a stress-free lifestyle? Their biological age may be older or younger than their chronological age, just depending on the lifestyle they lead. And we should be able to quantify that as well.

BBC: So if I asked you now, how old you are, Keith, what would you tell me?

Booher: I’m 38 years old.

BBC: But that’s the chronological age, is that right?

Booher: Correct!

BBC: Which one is more important, biological or chronological?

Booher: You know, if you’re a young teenager trying to get your driver’s license, obviously your chronological age is very important. But if you are in advanced years of your life or you may have made some choices that are… poor when you were younger or over the course of your life, then biological age becomes much more critical.

BBC: How did you end up using your science with refugees? 

Booher: Our information was passed to law enforcement officials working in Germany. And they had a case where they were trying to accurately determine the age of a refugee asylum seeker and they determined that the methods available to them at that time were not precise enough to get a good age determination and they reached out to us and asked if we could help.

BBC: What have you found in the course of your work? How accurate is your science at the moment? 

Booher: Currently, epigenetic clocks are the most accurate, most precise way to age a sample. So our platform that we offer at Zymo Research has a median error of under two years – it’s about one and a half years. Other publications, people using different types of methods – you know, similar epigenetic aging, have shown median errors anywhere between two to four years. On aggregate, you have a precise age estimation method.

BBC: Has it helped clarify or clear doubt about age?

Booher: Yeah, I think so. In the case of the asylum seeker, I was told this person presented with no official documentation. The person claimed to be a minor, and therefore entitled to certain protections and assistance according to United Nations guidelines. So in this case, I think it definitely helped clear up any doubt regarding the age of the subject.

BBC: I can see it working with football and other sports as well. You know, where there have been all sorts of questions about ages.

Booher: Yeah, that’s correct! That’s a good point. So there’s certain rules about the age of participants engaged in these activities in different leagues.

BBC: Keith Booher from Zymo Research Corporation which is developing Epigenetics.

Alexandra, K. (Producer). (2018, September 24). Newsday [Radio Broadcast]. London, UK: BBC World Service Radio

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