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Discount DNA: Lowering the Cost of Finding the Bad Guy
Kevin Paget, Law & Science Fellow

Low cost, low-fi DNA analysis may be coming to a police laboratory near you. Scientists working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have perfected a technique utilizing DNA assays to analyze DNA without hi-tech instruments and expensive chemical labeling.1 This technique, along with several others, is revolutionizing how the scientific community processes DNA information.

In a startling turn of events, straight out of a science fiction novel, robots have started to take over the FBI's DNA lab in Virginia2. Although humans are still employed to test blood and semen and look for stains, robots are used to process the DNA faster and more accurately than any human.3 In addition, the FBI is using a new technology called mass spectrometry to measure mitochondrial DNA, or DNA that comes only from the mother.4 This is important because now forensic scientists can separate mixed genetic material from two different people and identify each piece of DNA using only its weight.5 Robots are used during this process to read coded labels and to separate the mitochondrial DNA using metallic beads.6 The FBI hopes to use these new genetic testing methods not only to find criminals, but to exonerate the innocent.

Electrostatic-based DNA Microarray Technique is a complicated sounding method which may be the cost cutting breakthrough that will offer affordable DNA analysis to doctors, forensic scientists, and law enforcement officials. Scientists at the Berkeley Lab created this technique which spreads thousands of electrically-charged microscopic glass spheres over a DNA microarray.7 The motion of these spheres is then charted and the scientists measure the charges within these DNA molecules. The real breakthrough here is that no lasers or chemical labeling are required to measure the electric charges in these particles.8 In most cases, a digital camera or even the naked eye will suffice to analyze the DNA using this method9, which is simple, ultra low-tech, and quick - analyzing DNA in this manner could can be done in a matter of minutes.10

Using this electrostatic microarray method, scientists at MIT have developed a "nano printing" device that could aid in the mass production of these nano devices.11 This new method for printing DNA information is called Supramolecular Nano-Stamping (SuNS), and it allows single DNA strands to self-assemble and duplicate patterns of their complementary strands on a nano-scale level.12 The key to this method is that the duplicates can then be used as masters because they are identical to the original strands.13 This increases the output which can be produced, even though these are complex nano-scale DNA patterns. Using this new method can reduce the cost of printing these microarrays to under $50 per DNA sample14 - a drop from approximately $500 for current printing methods which require almost 400 steps in the printing cycle.15 This new method of printing, combined with the electrostatic technique for analyzing DNA, makes it easy and affordable to use these genetic samples to test for diseases and it has applications for other organic and inorganic materials.16 It is only a matter of time before this DNA analysis method will be commandeered for forensic and law enforcement purposes.

Researchers in the UK have developed a new method to analyze small amounts of DNA that were previously unusable.17 This method purifies and concentrates DNA samples and then reanalyzes them under optimized instruments.18 By distilling these samples, the scientists were able to obtain results from DNA samples previously thought to be too small for analysis.19 Forensic scientists can apply this new method to solve both new and cold cases where only trace amount of DNA is found.20

Yet another novel method for decoding genetic material has been discovered at the University of Illinois.21 Researchers at the university have devised a method that can sequence DNA by moving a molecule back and forth through a "nanopore capacitor" consisting of two layers of silicon divided by an insulating layer of silicon dioxide inside a semiconductor chip.22 By moving the DNA back and forth inside a nanopore capacitor, researchers can create an electrostatic fingerprint which can be used to read the genetic code of the DNA sample.23 This method is relatively inexpensive; it costs $1,000 or less to sequence one DNA sample.24 Like other emerging DNA analysis technologies, this nanopore method has the potential to be applied in law enforcement applications, making DNA analysis more readily available because of its cost effective nature.

All of these methods have great potential to drastically change the way DNA analysis is conducted by forensic scientists and law enforcement officials. Each one offers a cutting-edge and cost-cutting way to decode genetic material and they will help investigators and scientists solve crimes, punish the guilty, and exonerate the innocent.

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1 Berkeley Lab, New Electrostatic-based DNA Microarray Technique Could Revolutionize Medical Diagnostics, http://www.lbl.gov/publicinfo/newscenter/pr/2008/PBD-microarray.html (accessed Aug. 6, 2008).
2  NPR, FBI's New Technology Revolutionizes DNA Analysis, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php? storyId=18435256 (accessed Aug. 6, 2008).
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11 Physorg, New Technique May Speed DNA Analysis, http://www.physorg.com/news4201.html (accessed Aug. 6, 2008).
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17 Laboratorytalk, New Method for DNA Analysis is 'Unique', http://www.laboratorytalk.com/news/uka/ uka192.html (accessed Aug. 6, 2008).
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21  Bio-Medicine, New Technique Could Dramatically Lower Costs of DNA Sequencing, http://www.bio-medicine.org/biology-news-1/New-technique-could-dramatically-lower-costs-of-DNA-sequencing-1575-1/ (accessed Aug. 6, 2008).
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