Graphic of DNA molecule (The Associated Press)
by Ray Locker and Kendall Breitman
Researchers are closing in on the final steps of a new system to analyze human DNA in 90 minutes instead of the two to three weeks it now takes, according to interviews with Pentagon and industry officials.
Such a dramatic cut in the amount of time to get a DNA sample has huge ramifications for law enforcement, war crimes investigations and immigration, said Chris Asplen, the executive director of the Global Alliance for Rapid DNA Testing.
"When it comes to solving crime (not proving it in court but actually using DNA to find the killer, rapist, burglar, etc.) the value of DNA as an investigative tool is directly proportional to the speed at which it can be leveraged in any given investigation," Asplen said.
Pentagon researchers expect to finish evaluating prototypes of the Accelerated Nuclear DNA Equipment (ANDE) system by June, said Jenn Elzea, a Pentagon spokeswoman. The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice are also investigating prototypes, she said.
Once deployed, these systems would significantly reduce the time to analyze DNA, the building blocks of the human body. They would let investigators use the technology in the field instead of sending samples to a clean lab.
NetBio of Waltham, Mass., is developing the rapid DNA prototype under review by the Pentagon's Rapid Reaction Technology Office, Elzea said. The company was founded in 2000 and is based on research done at MIT's Whitehead Institute.
Beyond law enforcement, rapid DNA can be used for a variety of applications, Asplen said. They include immigration, human trafficking, war crimes and natural disasters. Military units could track the DNA of suspected terrorists or militants in places such as Afghanistan to gain a better understanding of the "biometrics" of certain populations.
After the research determines if the technology works well enough to deploy to the field, policymakers need to decide who can be screened and when, Elzea said. The Pentagon is already developing the guidance "for the use of rapid DNA analysis capabilities," she said.
Most government policies governing the use of DNA analysis go back to 1994 and the DNA Identification Act, Asplen said. That law did not anticipate rapid analysis. "The language requires that only DNA tests done in an accredited laboratory may be entered" into the national database. "That language will have to changed," he said.
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