DNA Doe Project Celebrates 100

On National DNA Day 2023, the DNA Doe Project is celebrating with a milestone – we have resolved 100 cases of unidentified remains! Learn more and join the celebration today.

Less than 6 years after its founding, the DNA Doe Project has reached an important milestone: its 100th identification. That’s 100 people, former Jane and John Does, who have had their names restored and 100 families who finally have answers about what happened to their loved ones, sometimes decades after they disappeared. 

Established in 2017 by co-founders Dr. Margaret Press and Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, the DNA Doe Project was conceived as an experiment in the use of genetic genealogy to identify Jane and John Does, otherwise known as unidentified remains cases. With a small trailblazing team of genealogists the group successfully identified its first Jane Doe, known as Buckskin Girl, announced to the world on April 11, 2018. The team used a DNA profile developed from her remains and information on public websites to build a family tree that led to Marcia King. Buoyed by this success, the group soon dove into more cases. With 100 successful identifications now behind them, the next 100 cases are already underway. 

Since its founding, the DNA Doe Project has grown to include 80 volunteer investigative genetic genealogists who are some of the most talented and experienced practitioners in this emerging field. Working in teams and in partnership with law enforcement and medical examiners across the country, the project’s volunteers have devoted tens of thousands of hours to the cause.

Advances in DNA science have made it more possible than ever to develop a profile that can be uploaded to the two databases available for law enforcement cases – GEDmatch Pro and FTDNA. Samples of bone, blood, tissue, and rootless hair from unidentified remains can be analyzed, including many that are highly degraded or contaminated. 

Investigative genetic genealogy is the process of recreating the family tree of an unidentified person – starting with the trees of their distant genetic cousin matches and public information to locate the exact branch that leads to the Doe. 

“The ultimate injustice in death is to die without your name,” said Co-Founder Margaret Press. “For every one of our Does, there is a life that has been erased. Over the past five years, it has been our singular focus to give back the names and stories to those who can no longer tell them.”

The DNA Doe Project’s unique non-profit model has enabled it to devote as much time and talent as is needed for the most difficult cases, providing all genetic genealogy pro bono. Donors to the non-profit also make it possible for the Project to fund some of the expensive lab work needed to develop the DNA profile, so that in many instances law enforcement and medical examiners who don’t have $5,000-7,000 in their budget for a case can still access the ground-breaking tools to make an identification. Cases involving people of color, who are significantly underrepresented in the databases, are especially challenging as they lack the number of genetic relatives in the system as those of Northern European descent. 

There is much more work to be done. By some estimates, there are over 50,000 cases of unidentified remains in the US alone, with about 1,000 added to that total each year. The DNA Doe Project also provides resources and mentoring programs to help new generations of investigative genetic genealogists enter the field to address this great need. 

“The future of this work is at a crossroads,” said Press. “We have to educate the public and ourselves about the ethical practice of investigative genetic genealogy to ensure that we maintain public trust, and that the resources we need to do the work are not restricted due to misconceptions about DNA and the databases. Regulators with incomplete or inaccurate information and good intentions could call a halt to what’s arguably the most significant tool for Law Enforcement since the advent of fingerprinting.”

The DNA Doe Project isn’t shying away from the challenges ahead. “It just makes us more determined to do this work,” said Press. “As we say on our website, ‘We’re just getting started.’”