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A DNA Analyzer That Fits in Your Pocket

Cheap and lightweight equipment turns smartphones into portable diagnostic labs.

By Katherine KorneiOctober 1, 2015 5:00 AM
Ozcan Research Lab at UCLA


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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.

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.

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

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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