A recent report from a research group in Birmingham, England and the Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine presented a new rapid method for DNA analysis. The researchers state that with a new DNA processing cartridge that they have developed, DNA results can be obtained in as little as four hours. This could be extremely useful to law enforcement though it does have a few drawbacks. After obtaining the analysis I would assume that it would then be uploaded into the CODIS system for comparison. The problem is that CODIS is not complete and is not used by all jurisdictions. That is changing, slowly, very slowly, but it is changing.
What intrigued me most about this new technique is that it used microfluidics as its basis. What the heck is that? It is essentially a method of analysis that uses very small amounts of fluid to perform various test in many disciplines, including chemistry, physics, engineering, and of course biotechnology. It is also used by NASA in many of its space probes.
While I was doing research for my book STRESS FRACTURE, I was lucky enough to get a private tour of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, my hometown. In all the years I lived there, besides going out and playing Little League baseball on the base or visiting the officers club with my father, I had never toured the facility. I knew what went on there and followed it very closely. I went to high school with the children of all the missile scientists. I remember well the ground shaking, much like the earthquakes here in California, every time von Braun tested another rocket booster.
Some of what I saw on the tour made its way into the book, particularly the work of Dr. David Hathaway and his VISAR system for video image enhancement. In fact he appears as a character in the book under another name. But one of the most fascinating individuals I met was Dr. Lisa Monaco. She works with microfluidics in a program called LOCAD or Lab-on-a-chip.
I remember her handing me a piece of translucent plastic about the size of a graham cracker. She said that there were 100,000 microfluidic channels in that chip, making it capable of doing 100,000 different experiments. The biochemistry is complex and much of what they use incorporates the blood proteins from horseshoe crabs, which are extremely primitive creatures and have a highly reactive immune system. This LOCAD device can seek out chemicals such as oxygen and water and amino acids, the things necessary for life as we know it.
These LOCAD chips are currently on the ISS (International Space Station) as well as the surface of Mars. And now they have entered the forensic lab.