A DNA Analyzer That Fits in Your Pocket

Cheap and lightweight equipment turns smartphones into portable diagnostic labs.

By Katherine Kornei|Thursday, October 01, 2015
RELATED TAGS: GENES & HEALTH
dna-analyzer
dna-analyzer
Ozcan Research Lab at UCLA
Our DNA defines us, but it can also betray us. Sections of our genetic code that get deleted or duplicated when DNA is copied — errors known as copy-number variations — may increase our susceptibility to afflictions like Alzheimer’s disease and malaria.

Unfortunately, the equipment required to diagnose copy-number variations is typically bulky and expensive. Now, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have shown how to turn a regular smartphone into a portable, inexpensive microscope that accurately measures copy-number variations in seconds.

DNA-strands
DNA-strands
Individual DNA molecules show up in this smartphone photo at left and the traditional, and more expensive, lab-produced image at right. The researchers superimposed red lines to denote DNA length.
Ozcan Research Lab at UCLA
Engineer Aydogan Ozcan and his team created their mobile microscopy unit by souping up the camera of a Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone. They attached an external lens, filters, focuser and laser, adding less than 7 ounces. After placing a DNA sample on a glass coverslip, the researchers use the laser to excite the DNA molecules and make them visible. The smartphone’s camera then snaps a picture of the coverslip through its lenses and filters. Finally, the image is sent to a UCLA server for digital processing.

Ozcan and his colleagues demonstrated that their $400 setup could identify copy-number variations and, subsequently, disease risk, replacing detection methods that require hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. Medical staff practicing in rural or resource-limited environments would benefit the most from this immediate and low-cost risk assessment, Ozcan suggests.

[This article originally appeared in print as "A Lab in Your Pocket."]

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