A new technology puts an entire forensics lab on a single chip to analyze DNA.
DNA analysis traditionally requires equipment that would fill a kitchen and take an entire day to complete. But a portable gizmo from NEC about the size of a rolling suitcase can complete an exam -- from extraction to analysis -- within 25 minutes at a crime scene.
NEC’s Portable DNA Analyzer can make anyone a member of the CSI team; the chip will automatically run the entire analysis process, requiring no professional skills.
DNA analysis consists of five steps: cell collection, DNA extraction, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to amplify DNA fragments, electrophoresis to ascertain DNA "fingerprints" and “short tandem repeat” (STR) analysis for determining genetic profiling.
All five of these steps are contained and completed on that one chip, marking a world's first, the company said.
The compact nature of the analyzer facilitates coordination between each step and greatly expedites the PCR procedure, where DNA fragments are alternatively heated and cooled.
PCR and electrophoresis equipment have been miniaturized dramatically. Ordinarily, a PCR is about the size of a printer and electrophoresis equipment is about the size of a refrigerator. The smaller sizes makes each process connections easier and faster, while the repetitive heating and cooling process of heating and cooling is also shortened.
By accelerating the results, a suspect short list can be drawn up faster immediately following a crime.
How does it work?
Rather than traditional test tubes, NEC’s “lab-on-a-chip” has 5-mm. wells that lie on a small plastic chip. The multiple layers of silicon film are laminated onto a single layer of resin.
Instead of using pipettes, the chip uses fluid-transferring channels and a complete reagents set is contained in one capsule. A special “bud” makes it easy to inject the extracted DNA into the well on the chip.
The user is spared the typical cleaning work as well; the chip has a waste area and, after analysis, the user just disposes of the entire chip safely.
An added benefit of a disposable chip design is that it also helps to avoid DNA mistyping.
The 2013 year system design will weigh approximately 70 pounds and stretch just under 3 feet in length.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at mailto:email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.