Technology Promises Instant DNA Matching

By Siuru, Bill | Law & Order, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Technology Promises Instant DNA Matching


Siuru, Bill, Law & Order


DNA evidence has helped put murderers, rapists and other dangerous criminals behind bars. It has also helped free the convicted who are innocent. Unfortunately, DNA analysis is still a time-consuming laboratory procedure. At present it can take up to several weeks for an analysis and there is a huge backlog of samples, the FBI says about 400,000 are awaiting analysis.

The solution could come from research sponsored by the National Institute of Justice to develop the capability to analyze DNA "fingerprints" at the crime scene. Nanogen, Inc. is well on its way to meeting this objective. The company has developed semiconductor microchips that combine microelectronics with molecular biology to meet immediate DNA identification.

The technology has many applications in biomedical research, medical diagnostics, genomics research, genetic testing, drug development and criminal forensics. For the last application, credit-card- size chips read by a briefcase-sized portable instrument could analyze DNA samples at the crime scene.

Today, advanced fingerprint systems allow prints to be taken at the scene and compared to a remote database of fingerprints. Similarly, Nanogen's system could be a component networked to a DNA database. Collected and analyzed at the crime scene, the DNA would then be matched over a network to remote DNA database.

Forensic analysis of DNA requires preparing samples from hair, saliva, blood, skin fleck or semen samples. Obtaining a clean, reproducible DNA sample from these very different types of biological media is challenging, especially if the tests will be done in the field rather than the laboratory.

Nanogen has completed early tests using its technology to separate cells and other steps preparing the DNA for analysis. The goal is to simplify the sample preparation. The company has developed a prototype incorporating most of the steps required. According to Nanogen, a self-contained system that could do the entire analysis in the field could be available in five years, depending on the level of funding and political will applied to the project.

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