Mobile magnification

Anyone who works with genetics and genetic sequencing – you know what, anyone who works in a scientific lab – is aware that their labs look nowhere near the way it looks on TV or movies, unless you work in a brand-spanking new lab. While TV/movie science labs have to be prettied-up so the folks at Lighting don’t get fits, real science labs only have to be neat and orderly so they don’t get caught up in health and safety violations. Then again, with tech as it is today, a ‘real’ science lab doesn’t have to only in a building – some of your research could be done outside, where your materials probably are or where the conditions are just right. The problem is that you can’t take all of your instruments with you. Geneticists definitely have this problem. You have to have samples, take them back to the lab or worse (money’s involved after all) – you’ve got to send them off to someone else. Any number of things can go wrong with that. You’re better off doing things yourself because you know your methodology, but you don’t have the instruments out in the field with you, and you need analysis now. Double imperative if you’re working at, say, a field hospital.

Public Domain (Author: United States Navy)

Fortunately, Kühnemund et al. developed a prototype for what is essentially a DNA microscope that you could use out in the field. Considering that the usual instruments are either large or expensive, the whole kit-and-kaboodle would cost you US$500 since it is, essentially, a camera attachment. This portable microscope can detect point mutations which may indicate a number of things, including cancer.

Public Domain (Author: US National Library of Medicine)

(or if you’re just frivolous, scan a DNA sample so you could find out why your DNA-sequenced video looks like mid-1990s scrambled cable – man, I’m getting old…)

Some of you may be wondering (or I’m just implanting the data in your head – I’m convincing like that) how they could get someone to make the housing for that. You know, who made the thing that holds the phone/camera, the lasers, and the microscope slide holder together? Do they sculpt and mold the whole shebang themselves? The answer: in any major university, there’s always an instrument shop, like the one in my alma mater. They could make the laboratory glassware that you need (good for biologists and especially chemists) at least, but they can also make metallic or plastic housing that you need to hold your instruments together. You may need some experience with drafting software, but they’ve got people on hand that could help you out, if nothing else because the software can get expensive and you can’t afford to load a copy of AutoCAD on your laptop, especially not on a graduate student’s salary (oh well, at least League of Legends is free…) If you just happen to be in a major university with one of these, you really need to tour an instrument lab if only for interest in science’s sake. It’s pretty much a maker space for instrumentation nerds.

(it seems like I’m kind of promoting my alma mater, but whatever – they’re the ones who granted me a doctorate in the first place)

The authors do mention that this speeds up the technical process, so it’s easy for lab technicians, but the issue is pathologists – you may have data, but you still need someone to make sense of it. Like many prototyping studies, they also suggest other things they could do to improve the instrument, such as using higher DNA concentrations or trying to eliminate the noise from ‘auto-fluorescent’ objects in DNA. Yes, your genes, under the right conditions, can light up. But nonetheless, it’s a great instrument to have in any field study – it’s cheap, portable, and if nothing else, it’s an attachment that’s infinitely more professional than a selfie-stick. Instagram should get interesting…

Featured Article: Kühnemund M, Wei Q, Darai E, Wang Y, Hernández-Neuta I, Yang Z, Tseng D, Ahlford A, Mathot L, Sjöblom T, Ozcan A, Nilsson M. (2017) Targeted DNA sequencing and in situ mutation analysis using mobile phone spectroscopy. Nature Communications 8. doi: 10.1038/ncomms13913

Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: moritz320)

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