DNA analysis, right on your iPhone
Author Jacqueline Detwiler
How sure are you that the monkfish you picked up at the supermarket isn’t actually toxic puffer fish? It probably says monkfish on the label, but labels are prone to human error. Situations like this are part of the reason an international consortium of scientists started the International Barcode of Life (IBOL) project, which maintains a reference library of DNA “barcodes.” IBOL aims to create a DNA scanner attachment for smartphones that can classify any plant or animal on Earth in seconds. Customs agents could use such a tool to prevent invasive or endangered creatures from entering their countries, outdoorsmen could determine what kinds of bugs have bitten them and the FDA could keep an eye on what’s in our sushi. To start, the group will release an app by the end of 2014 that will allow everyone from gardeners to the FDA to send in samples to be identified. Here’s how they’ll do it.
1. Until a user-friendly mobile DNA sequencer attachment is developed (which could take a few years), the app will locate a nearby lab able to decode DNA. When a person finds a living thing she needs identified, she can take a sample—like a hair, a stinger or a flower—request a vial through the app and send the sample to the suggested lab.
2. Next, the lab compares the found item’s “barcode”—a short piece of sequenced DNA—to the 100,000-plus in the IBOL database. If there’s a match, the app will send an automatic notification describing what it has found. This description will include a profile of photos, common characteristics and usual habitats.
3. There are already DNA sequencers small enough that they could feasibly be attached to smartphones, but IBOL’s next project will be to develop one that can be used by anyone, regardless of training or scientific ability. When released, it will perform the wet lab work onsite, eliminating the need for mailing vials.