FITCHBURG (WKOW) – Scientists at a company headquartered in Dane County have developed a new technology that has the potential to transform DNA analysis worldwide. It is the Spectrum CE system from Promega.
The tool performs capillary electrophoresis (CE), a technique that allows forensic analysts to process DNA samples and determine if they can be traced back to an individual.
CE isn’t new, but those at Promega who helped develop the Spectrum CE system say their product expands the possibilities.
“We drive innovation at CE. We’re pushing their opportunities,” said Lisa Misner. Misner is Genetic Identity Training Development & Technical Support Manager at Promega.
“This is the first CE instrument designed with a forensic scientist in mind,” she said. “We’re talking about crime labs, your sheriff’s labs, things like that.”
Currently, existing CE technology allows scientists to analyze 6 components simultaneously. Spectrum CE increases this to 8.
Though the change might seem small, Misner said it can make a big difference, especially when analysts are trying to process degraded DNA samples.
“Possibly a cold case, missing persons, any specimen that has been exposed to the elements where the DNA could degrade over time, these are some of the most challenging specimens a forensic lab can encounter,” Misner said.
According to Sara Huston Katsanis, an assistant science professor at Northwestern University, when processing degraded samples, scientists are rarely able to identify all of the markers they want to use for a DNA match.
“You can’t add the DNA back in. When it’s disassembled, it’s disassembled, but whatever we can do to take the disassembled and try to amplify and visualize it is valuable,” she said. “So any techniques we have to improve the ability to analyze the fragments that are present are valuable for all kinds of forensic applications.”
Katsanis said there is evidence that Spectrum CE offers a slight improvement in analyzing degraded DNA samples.
“This is enormously valuable, even if it only helps in one case,” she said. “I mean, one case is another case solved.”
Katsanis said that while the Spectrum CE advances appear to be a small step forward rather than a game-changing change, there is a wide range of potential applications.
In addition to helping law enforcement solve cold cases, she said improved CE technology could give scientists more ways to identify people who die in mass disasters like wildfires.
“It’s really important in these cases to be able to identify and understand who is dying so that we can bring justice and also close families,” Katsanis said.
Misner has been developing the Spectrum CE system for nearly a decade. During this process, she said she drew on her own experience as a forensic analyst.
“I was able to put myself back in my shoes as an analyst, back in my clients’ shoes, and try to think about what I would wish for when I was back in the lab,” she said.
That led to the other improvement that Spectrum CE makes that affects the workflow of scientists.
Misner said that forensic analysts currently place their samples directly in the field where analysis takes place, and most CE instruments contain only two sample plates.
“Once you start running, you can’t do anything with it,” she said. “You must stop this run before you can add more plates.”
Misner said this means scientists can sometimes spend quite a bit of time worrying about planning or waiting for a run to finish before they can begin their own analysis.
To change that, the Promega Spectrum CE developers added a simple feature: a drawer.
The new tool can hold up to four sample plates at the same time. When analysis is complete on one plate, it automatically moves on to the second, and scientists can replace the finished plate with a new one.
“It’s not something we want [analysts] have to think about it,” Misner said. “We don’t want this to be a hurdle in their workflow. We want to offer them something that makes their day a little bit smoother and faster.”