University of Arkansas researcher Donald K. Roper has patented a process that reduces the time it takes to perform DNA analysis from hours to minutes.
Roper, associate professor of chemical engineering, explained that the ultimate goal of his research is to develop a credit-card-sized device to be used in a doctor’s office or at a crime scene to quickly analyze samples of DNA. “That’s the power of being able to do this on a really tiny scale,” he said.
Roper’s process, developed while working at the University of Utah, uses gold nanoparticles to increase the efficiency of the chain reaction. During the reaction, strands of DNA are heated and cooled in cycles. When the samples are heated, the two strands of a DNA double helix come apart, and when the temperature is lowered, an enzyme called polymerase zips each strand to other, complementary strands, forming two new DNA helixes. These copies are then heated and cooled again, doubling each time until the desired amount of DNA has been produced.
Roper’s method reduces the time involved in these cycles from minutes to milliseconds, which means that a DNA sample could be analyzed within minutes rather than hours. By associating the DNA and enzyme with a gold nanoparticle and then exciting the nanoparticle with a light source or laser beam, Roper can target temperature changes to the area immediately around the DNA. This allows researchers to raise or lower the temperature more quickly. In addition, the process can be used to analyze the DNA during the reaction.
“We can use the laser light and the gold nanoparticles to do both the amplification and the analysis simultaneously,” explained Roper. “The electromagnetic field around the nanoparticle is strong enough that it can sense whether or not the strand that we’re interested in is there. The laser induces the field and then a detector assays the difference in the field.”
Roper’s research has implications for many scientific fields. “Genomics underscores everything of interest to biology: gene sequencing, disease diagnostics, pharmaceutical development and genetic analysis,” he explained. “DNA is the basis of inheritance for the cell, and the degree of transcription of the DNA determines how a cell will function. This is a tool that examines these processes.”