New software can verify someone’s identity by their DNA in minutes
In the science-fiction movie Gattaca, visitors only clear security if a blood test and readout of their genetic profile matches the sample on file. Now, cheap DNA sequencers and custom software could make real-time DNA-authentication a reality.
Researchers at Columbia University and the New York Genome Center have developed a method to quickly and accurately identify people and cell lines from their DNA. The technology could have multiple applications, from identifying victims in a mass disaster to analyzing crime scenes. But its most immediate use could be to flag mislabeled or contaminated cell lines in cancer experiments, a major reason that studies are later invalidated.
“Our method opens up new ways to use off-the-shelf technology to benefit society,” said the study’s senior author Yaniv Erlich, a computer science professor at Columbia Engineering, an adjunct core member at NYGC, and a member of Columbia’s Data Science Institute. “We’re especially excited about the potential to improve cell-authentication in cancer research and potentially speed up the discovery of new treatments.”
The software is designed to run on the MinION, an instrument the size of a credit card that pulls in strands of DNA through its microscopic pores and reads out sequences of nucleotides, or the DNA letters A, T, C, G. The device has made it possible for researchers to study bacteria and viruses in the field, but its high error-rate and large sequencing gaps have, until now, limited its use on human cells with their billions of nucleotides.
In an innovative two-step process, the researchers outline a new way to use the $1,000 MinION and the abundance of human genetic data now online to validate the identity of people and cells by their DNA with near-perfect accuracy.