Team builds revolutionary DNA microscope from leftover DVD parts

29 Nov 2017

Image: nikkytok/Shutterstock

A team of scientists has made a substantial breakthrough in the search for disease-causing mutations with a very cheap DNA microscope.

To expand our efforts to find genetic mutations that eventually form debilitating diseases, a team of scientists from the University of Bristol and Virginia Commonwealth University has developed a new nano-mapping microscope that is being described as ‘revolutionary’.

This device can label DNA molecules at a significantly faster speed than standard microscopes.

The results show that it can map a resolution of tens of base pairs at a rate of hundreds per second, allowing for its use in real-world diagnostics for the first time.

In a paper published to Nature Communications, the team explained that its microscope is capable of mapping hundreds of chemically barcoded DNA molecules every second, labelled using the much-heralded technology, CRISPR.

Developed by Prof Jason Reed, the clever CRISPR barcoding method alters the chemical reaction conditions of the CRISPR enzyme so that it only sticks to the DNA and does not actually cut it. Because the CRISPR enzyme is bigger than a DNA molecule, it is perfect for this form of barcoding.

The team was also ‘amazed’ at the fact that this new method is nearly 90pc efficient at bonding to the DNA molecules, making it easy to spot.

Can be mass-produced

Perhaps the most impressive aspect is that the whole thing was put together using off-the-shelf components from a DVD player.

Using the laser and optics of the media device, the team could supercharge this atomic force microscope to analyse and map the DNA molecules.

Co-inventor of the microscope, Dr Oliver Payton, said: “Although other types of microscope have the resolution to see these DNA molecules, they are thousands of times slower and it would take years to make a confident diagnosis.

“Not only is our microscope perfect for these medical applications but, because of the readily available DVD player components, it can be mass-produced.”

To demonstrate the technique’s effectiveness, researchers mapped genetic translocations present in lymph node biopsies of lymphoma patients.

Translocations (DNA copied and pasted to the wrong part of the genome) are especially prevalent in blood cancers such as lymphoma but occur in other cancers as well.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic