Human age estimation from blood using mRNA, DNA methylation, DNA rearrangement, and telomere length


      • Estimating a person’s age from blood left at a crime scene provides crucial forensic information.
      • We studied the age effect of mRNA, DNA methylation, sjTREC, telomere length in blood.
      • Genome-wide marker search was followed by rigorous technical and biological validations.
      • Overall, DNA methylation markers outperformed in age correlation all other biomarkers tested.
      • A model with 8 DNA methylation markers achieved high accuracy in estimating age from blood.


      Establishing the age of unknown persons, or persons with unknown age, can provide important leads in police investigations, disaster victim identification, fraud cases, and in other legal affairs. Previous methods mostly relied on morphological features available from teeth or skeletal parts. The development of molecular methods for age estimation allowing to use human specimens that possess no morphological age information, such as bloodstains, is extremely valuable as this type of samples is commonly found at crime scenes. Recently, we introduced a DNA-based approach for human age estimation from blood based on the quantification of T-cell specific DNA rearrangements (sjTRECs), which achieves accurate assignment of blood DNA samples to one of four 20-year-interval age categories. Aiming at improving the accuracy of molecular age estimation from blood, we investigated different types of biomarkers. We started out by systematic genome-wide surveys for new age-informative mRNA and DNA methylation markers in blood from the same young and old individuals using microarray technologies. The obtained candidate markers were validated in independent samples covering a wide age range using alternative technologies together with previously proposed DNA methylation, sjTREC, and telomere length markers. Cross-validated multiple regression analysis was applied for estimating and validating the age predictive power of various sets of biomarkers within and across different marker types. We found that DNA methylation markers outperformed mRNA, sjTREC, and telomere length in age predictive power. The best performing model included 8 DNA methylation markers derived from 3 CpG islands reaching a high level of accuracy (cross-validated R2 = 0.88, SE ± 6.97 years, mean absolute deviation 5.07 years). However, our data also suggest that mRNA markers can provide independent age information: a model using a combined set of 5 DNA methylation markers and one mRNA marker could provide similarly high accuracy (cross-validated R2 = 0.86, SE ± 7.62 years, mean absolute deviation 4.60 years). Overall, our study provides new and confirms previously suggested molecular biomarkers for age estimation from blood. Moreover, our comparative study design revealed that DNA methylation markers are superior for this purpose over other types of molecular biomarkers tested. While the new and some previous findings are highly promising, before molecular age estimation can eventually meet forensic practice, the proposed biomarkers should be tested further in larger sets of blood samples from both healthy and unhealthy individuals, and markers and genotyping methods shall be validated to meet forensic standards.


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