Three questions for an expert: Fast DNA

A new technology under test by Morpho promises to map a person's DNA profile from a simple buccal swab in less than an hour, in the field and with no need for a specialist. James Grivet, Development Manager in charge of the DNA project, explains how it works.

First of all, can you tell us how biometric data is used in police investigations?
When investigators arrest a suspect, they might need to be able to identify the person with certainty. But they may also be interested in other crucial information: was the person involved in other cases in the past? Or is he/she directly linked to the investigation in progress? They take the suspect's fingerprints, along with other biometric data such as photos of the person's face, then send it all to central databases to identify the suspect or possibly establish a connection with unsolved earlier cases. These operations are carried out very quickly, on the same day, giving investigators a very efficient means of solving cases. DNA is another key piece of biometric data in investigations. But because of its complexity, it is not part of this fast, automated processing. Investigators take a buccal swab from the suspect, then send the sample to a government-approved laboratory, which will establish the person's DNA profile. And it is only after the profile has been obtained and verified by experts that it is sent back to a central database for checking and possible crosschecking. The problem is that this process can take days or even weeks, sometimes holding up investigations for so long that cases are never solved...

What has changed now for DNA?
Recent research advances, especially in nanotechnologies and the microphysics of so-called "microfluidic" chips, have made it possible to design integrated instruments that can automatically carry out all of the analysis phases required to produce a genetic profile. The fact that these devices work on very small scales and operate automatically considerably shortens processing times and means they can be used by "non-experts". Most importantly, though, it will take investigators only an hour to obtain a DNA profile from a buccal swab. And we believe this timeframe might even be shortened soon!
By making it possible to carry out genetic profiling in the field, rapidly and directly at the point of collection (the instrument can even be installed in a van), this innovation streamlines what had been a very protracted, step-by-step process up until now, even though it sometimes played a crucial role in solving criminal cases. To the extent that, sooner or later, police forces will undoubtedly make it part of their standard equipment. This will of course be governed by a suitable legislative framework and require tight control by relevant authorities.

What stage are you at now?
The technology has entered the phase where the process is finalised and the generated data is validated. Morpho is looking forward to including it in its offering as part of technology partnerships. We are currently testing the very first prototypes to make absolutely sure that the results obtained are accurate, regardless of the conditions in which it is used.This means that the first large-scale rollouts might get under way in late 2013.