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Lawrence Livermore creates fast DNA copy machine

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's a common scene in police dramas and in your doctor's office: waiting for the test results to get back from the lab. Now a breakthrough at Lawrence Livermore Lab has dramatically cut the time to identify dangerous diseases -- and other suspects -- using DNA.

Soon, a little black box could save you a trip to the doctor for lab results. It's the fastest DNA copy machine yet.

Reg Beer, an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory knows about that wait. "I was in a waiting room with my child, when I really thought, 'What if we could do this a lot faster?'"

In CSI and other popular police procedurals, DNA is used to identify criminals, yes. But more often it is used to identify pathogens such as HIV, tuberculosis and SARS. That's how San Francisco's Health Department lab uses it every day. But DNA tests still take too long.

"Typically, speeds are on the order of hours," says the lab chief at the Health Department. A big bottleneck is amplification of small samples. You need to make lots of copies of the DNA first. The copy machine is called a PCR. PCR heats the DNA to break it up, then cools it, then heats it, then cools it, again and again. The fastest device you can buy takes a half minute each time. This new black box cuts it to less than a second. That's huge.

Part of Livermore Lab's secret is a new porous material that can heat a larger sample, and cool it again, at insane speeds. It can be powered by batteries, and made very small. The hope is that, soon, health labs will be able to use DNA to identify hundreds of pathogens -- in just minutes, using a device the size of a shoebox.

"When somebody goes into their doctor's office," predicts Reg Beer, "if they have something that's seriously threatening, they can be tested for it while they wait."

The next step is to turn development over to a commercial partner to manufacture the new device.

------- Links -------

Lawrence Livermore Lab News

DNA Amplification research paper

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