In films you can imagine people clearing security checks with a quick blood test that matches their genetic profile to something held on a futuristic database.
Telling evil criminals if they are who they say they are, or are in fact 007 in disguise.
But this Orwellian nightmare could actually become be a reality as American scientists have created a cheap DNA sequencer with custom software that allows almost real-time DNA authentication. Returning results in a matter of minutes.
The team from Colombia University and the New York Genome Centre have developed a method to quickly (and accurately) identify people from their DNA and cell lines.
Current DNA testing of blood samples (for example, in cases of paternity investigation) can take as much as a week to return results.
The idea for immediate use was to enable scientists to check cancer samples that might have been mislabeled or contaminated – a major reason why lots of cancer studies fail.
But it also has real-world application in being able to identify victims in a mass disaster or analyse a crime scene in real time.
Study senior author, Yaniv Erlich, says: “Our method opens up new ways to use off-the-shelf technology to benefit society.”
The technology is designed to run on an instrument that is the size of a credit card (known as the MinION) so would be portable for investigators. It works by pulling in strands of DNA through microscopic pores and reads out sequences of DNA letters or nucleotides (e.g. A, T, C, G).
The study’s lead author Sophie Zaaijer compares to the brain’s ability to make out a bird from a few telling features in an abstract Picasso line-drawing.
Previously the high error-rate and large sequencing gaps had stopped this being useful for human cells, with their billions of nucleotides, but the updated version of the MinION has given it “near-perfect accuracy”.
Within minutes, it verified Zaaijer using her data against a public genome database.
Although the team still see the application being mainly used in labs – the use of misidentified or contaminated cell lines in medical research is blamed for as much as a third of an estimated $28 billion spent each year on studies that can’t be replicated, according to the team.
But of course, the availability of technology with certain capabilities asks questions about wider use in society.