Swiss build a portable field DNA tester

Swiss build a portable field DNA tester

Swiss technicians are developing a wearable device for DNA research at the Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) multidisciplinary GenoRobotics project in Switzerland.

The problem with current methods is that DNA must often be stored and sent to a specialized laboratory for characterization. This is particularly difficult when sampling in remote locations. These can also become infected along the way, which means you must return to get a new sample. This device allows scientists to extract and sequence DNA while they are in the field. In this way, they can make more accurate maps of, for example, changes in the flora of the area.

The project is led by two former EPFL students, Nicholas Adam and Jonathan Sales. The two came up with the idea during a research trip to Madagascar to characterize the lemur habitat. The samples were to be returned to the United States for analysis. Due to the paperwork – it took 2 years before it was analyzed in the lab. The two realized they needed to find a way to sequence and analyze the DNA to avoid these long delays.


To speed up the extraction process, the technology uses a hydrogel that was developed by EPFL students. The hydrogel was originally designed to administer vaccines and contains fine needles. It’s a small square piece of gel that can – once pressed against a type – extract DNA with needles.

“Our tests show that the strands obtained in this way are pure and concentrated enough to perform the coding of the strand DNA,” Adam said in the EPFL article. “To prevent contamination of samples during extraction, we have developed a new mechanism that works like a stapler.”

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“We want to use a system developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies for sequencing,” says researcher Cyril Munnet, also associated with the project.


Once the strands are collected, the next step is to identify the DNA. In GenoRobotics, this is done using a miniature spectrophotometer – a common type of instrument that works by measuring how molecules containing DNA absorb UV light. “The difficult part is making sure you have enough genetic material after the quantification process,” Monette said.

Engineers also want to develop a storage medium that can be used in areas where Internet connections are unreliable. Genome sequencing can require tens of gigabytes of memory. The two plan to use bar DNA encoders – short bits of DNA – to characterize a single gene. Once the samples are analyzed, the goal is to upload that data to a database, where it will be linked to existing publicly available databases such as iBOL and GenBank.

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