NIJ scientist Tracey Johnson joins science writer Sarah Michaud in this episode. They discuss Rapid DNA technology, and Tracey explains the complexities of this technology — its pitfalls and its possibilities. Read the transcript.
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SARAH MICHAUD: Welcome, everyone. I’m Sarah Michaud, Senior Science Writer with the National Institute of Justice. Today, I’m talking with Tracey Johnson, a Forensic Scientist with the National Institute of Justice, about Rapid DNA. Rapid DNA is a term used to describe an automated process for quickly developing a DNA profile in under 90 minutes. Tracey joined us in early 2021 to manage NIJ’s Forensic Biology Research portfolio. Prior to NIJ, Tracey served as a Forensic Technical Analyst with the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency, where she coordinated forensics activities across the U.S. Department of Defense and their multinational partners. She has extensive experience with human DNA testing for bio--biotechnology, research and development lab, and human remains testing lab. Welcome, Tracey.
TRACEY JOHNSON: Thanks, Sarah, for the introduction. I’m looking forward to speaking to you today about the growing field of Rapid DNA, and what it has to offer the forensic community.
SARAH MICHAUD: Great. We’re happy to have you. Let’s start with an explanation of the technology. Tracey, can you tell me in plain language, what is Rapid DNA?
TRACEY JOHNSON: Sure, Sarah. So in short, Rapid DNA is the development of a DNA profile using a fully automated process without any human intervention, what’s commonly known as swab in and profile out. Essentially, a Rapid DNA instrument recreates the modern DNA processing workflow using a modified extraction, PCR amplification separation, and data interpretation method. And they do all this to create a DNA profile from a high quality single source sample in less than 90 minutes.
SARAH MICHAUD: Thank you for that great introduction, Tracey. Can you tell me what Rapid DNA can do?
TRACEY JOHNSON: Sure. So currently, right now, Rapid DNA instruments are being used by both law enforcement agencies and booking stations, and by forensic laboratories. And this is to process known reference buccal samples only. There are a set of standards and procedures for the booking station, and for the forensic laboratories, and they’re different. And they’re different, and because of how these profiles are then sent to and searched by CODIS, which is the software that manages our national DNA Index System.
SARAH MICHAUD: Okay. And how is this technology being regulated?
TRACEY JOHNSON: So Rapid DNA is a great platform. But it currently is only able to be used for reference buccal samples when those samples are to be included in our national DNA database. And so there were a number of regulations and requirements that have been developed by the FBI for those profiles that are to be included in the National DNA Index. These include regulations for the platform or the instrument for the amplification chemistry being used, or for the cartridge itself, on the cartridge that contains that chemistry, and for any expert systems being used. So each part of those systems need to be evaluated and approved by the FBI prior to being used on samples that are then being included in our National DNA Index. So there are also a number of prerequisites, that are required prior to including samples in the DNA database, from the states themselves. So that state needs to have laws that allow for a recipe collection, they need to use the integration of a live scan system with the collection of a DNA sample in a booking station. And they have to have a network connection with their state, identification bureau, or CJIS system prior to implementing Rapid DNA technology.
SARAH MICHAUD: Okay. And can you go into more detail about how law enforcement officers and forensic scientists are using the technology?
TRACEY JOHNSON: So there are several uses of the Rapid DNA instrument. So primarily initially, they’re being used in booking stations. And they’re also being used in forensic science laboratories. So in the booking station, Rapid DNA instruments are being used to develop a DNA profile while an individual is being held. So, we talked a little bit about some of the powers of Rapid DNA instrument being that you can generate a profile in under 90 minutes. So, this 90 minutes is being used to its advantage to be able to make a decision about holding that person. And Rapid DNA instruments are also being used in forensic science laboratory. Again, they’re being used to sort of expedite the processing of samples in a forensic science laboratory. However, in both these situations, if that DNA profile is then going to be available and searchable at a national level, it can only be a known sample, or a swab from someone’s mouth, a buccal sample that contains buccal cells. There are some additional uses for Rapid DNA instruments. Because these samples are not being, sort of, searched at a national level they don’t require the same sorts of regulation required otherwise. And these would be sort of situations where you’re using the Rapid DNA instrument on a closed population. These include things like accidents, or mass disasters where there’s sort of a known or anticipated list of the individuals involved. And that allows, at least within these closed populations, where you have a known set of, or an expected set of individuals involved in that particular incident to be identified very quickly.
SARAH MICHAUD: Okay. Thank you for that. And can you tell me a little bit more about the use of Rapid DNA for things outside of law enforcement in forensics?
TRACEY JOHNSON: So there’ve been several recent events; one of them a boat fire off the coast of California, the other being a wildfire, there was a homicide investigation in the state of Pennsylvania, where Rapid DNA was used to identify very quickly the victims. So this requires a fair bit of coordination on the part of the individuals performing this type of testing. They need to have either a reference from the individual of concern so the--so the victim, in this particular case, or they need to have reference DNA samples available from the family members. And this would typically be a parent, a child, a very close biological relative or non-biological relative of the--of the victim. But given the coordination, the processing of the samples can happen much more quickly than it can in a traditional forensic laboratory so that you can shorten that window of being able to notify the family members that their loved one was indeed involved in that particular disaster, or was a victim of a crime. And that can be very, very powerful to be able to shorten that time window in which the family has conclusive proof that their loved one has been a victim.
SARAH MICHAUD: This is obviously a very powerful technology. I’m wondering if you can tell me more about the use of Rapid DNA with evidence samples from crime scenes. What’s been approved, and I think more interestingly, what is not approved for use with Rapid DNA?
TRACEY JOHNSON: Certainly, Sarah. Right now, currently, Rapid DNA platforms are not authorized to process samples that are taken at a crime scene, or where the source of that DNA profile is unknown. However, there have been two recent journal articles that have really documented both the current capabilities of our platforms, and made recommendations for future requirements for these platforms. And I understand that these articles will be available in the show notes later. But the first of these was published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, and it’s called the "Results of the 2018 Rapid DNA Maturity Assessment." And the second of these was an article published in Forensic Science International, or FSI Genetics is what it’s more commonly referred to. And there was a letter to the editor in 2000--in 2020, and there was a letter to the editor from the European Network of Forensic Science Institute, SWYGDAM, and the Rapid DNA Crime Scene Technology Advancement Group at the FBI. So all these three groups got together to write a letter, asking and urging the manufacturers to make five specific changes to the [INDISTINCT] before we can really evaluate processing of unknown or crime scene samples. Currently, they’re really not ready for these types of samples. And that is, because, as I was mentioning in the beginning, the technology that’s used to do these processes types of samples has been modified from the existing or current technology that’s being used. It’s not simply that you’ve taken what the laboratory is doing and you’re miniaturizing it; you really have had to change how that extraction processes happen, change how that PCR process is happening.
And so those changes, while have been able to be compacted and put into a very small instrument, they’re still not as robust and as reliable as our current DNA technologies. And so those things that they’ve requested to be changed include a processing of an integrated positive control. And that control would regulate samples that are low quantity, samples that show degradation or inhibition. They’ve asked that the raw data, or unanalyzed data, be made available outside of the platform instrument, and that really is to make it available for analysis, either for court proceedings or for training and other kinds of things like that. There’s a need for a fully automated onboard expert system to interpret both single source and multiple source DNA profiles. And then the amplification chemistry is being used, they really need to improve the peak height balance both within the targeted locus and across that DNA profile. And then the manufacturers need to perform a well-defined and make publicly available a developmental validation. So these things are happening now and will lead to, you know, guidance later on for law enforcement agencies. But right now, if there are law enforcement agencies that would like to use rapid DNA instrument on unknown samples, there is guidance. There are guiding documents to allow them to do that. And these cover both the use of the instruments and courtroom considerations as well.
SARAH MICHAUD: Thank you, Tracey. And we’ll make sure to include the references you cited in our show notes so our listeners can get more information. Tracey, can you tell me about some of the advantages of using rapid DNA and maybe some of the challenges that go along with that?
TRACEY JOHNSON: Sure, Sarah. So there are two main advantages to using the rapid DNA instrument. This is that the sample can be processed very quickly. And two, the power of then searching that DNA profile against the--against the database. So, with regards to processing the sample quickly, however, there are some challenges that come along with that. And that is that your throughput is quite limited. On the typical instruments available on the marketplace today, you can process around five samples. And if you’re including a control, that’s how your laboratory has implemented this particular platform, that limits, then, your ability to be able to process samples to around four. And with the technology, in addition to the decreased throughput, there is an increased cost per sample to be able to process the sample in that very short amount of time.
And then with regards to the power that comes from searching that DNA profile against the database, with rapid DNA technology, there is not the ability to be able to search a developed DNA profile against the entire National DNA Index System; that is not able to happen currently now, in real time. But to accommodate the need to be able to search, there was an index of special concern created for these DNA profiles, and that can be done in real time. And this index of special concern is a limited number of profiles within the national DNA index that are related to serial murderers and to a serial rapist and other sort of high profile investigations. So when profiles are developed on a rapid DNA instrument, they are able to be searched. And you can get an answer back very quickly when compared to this index of special concern.
SARAH MICHAUD: Tracey, are forensics labs and law enforcement agencies in different jurisdictions using rapid DNA instruments the same way?
TRACEY JOHNSON: So, no, Sarah, they’re not. There are some limited number of jurisdictions that have gone ahead and have decided to use rapid DNA instruments sort of outside the FBI approval and recommendation. As we talked about right now, rapid DNA instruments are really only approved to process known or buccal samples. And so there are some jurisdictions that have decided to use the technology to develop, store, and search DNA profiles, but at a local level only. And the challenge with this is really to ensure that any data that’s developed on those samples, whether they be buccal samples or known samples, or unknown samples, collected at a crime scene.
So again, the challenge is to ensure that any of those DNA data is also made available at a national level. And so to do this, they’ve adopted a process where there’s an A swab and a B swab that are taken at the--at the time that the samples are being collected. And so, one of those is being processed on a rapid DNA instrument and being able to be searched against that local, or the sort of developed and curated, database that’s specific to the organization, the law enforcement agency or jurisdiction that’s using it. And so that’s--they have a limited search that they can do, but they can do that very quickly. And then the B swab is being sent to a--an accredited laboratory that can process it in the traditional manner. And so they may be able to sometimes to develop more data from that second swab, but it will definitely take more time. But it will also be available at a national level, whereas the original A swab would have only been available to be searched against that local database only. So you are sort of maybe getting the best out of both worlds when you use that type of process. So you’re getting a very quick answer with maybe more limited results, but then you also have another sample where you’re able to generate robust results and to have that profile available at a national level. And--but it will definitely take a fair bit more time for that profile to be developed.
SARAH MICHAUD: And what has been NIJ’s role in developing rapid DNA technology?
TRACEY JOHNSON: So, NIJ has funded several projects aimed at the development of both a rapid and/or a field based technology. Most of these projects started around 2004. And they led to the engineering that was necessary to really develop the micro fluidics and optics that are used in the current modern day rapid DNA instruments. Now, early on, some of this technology was really only able to replace small parts of that overall DNA workflow. So they started with the DNA extraction. There were--then there was work on the capillary electrophoresis, or the fragment--the DNA fragment separation. And then there was work to then piece all of that back together. And then there was research done to optimize the existing systems, as well as to integrate some new features or features that weren’t originally planned for the rapid DNA or fieldable DNA technology. And these are things like DNA quantification. And what I hope that communicates to our listeners is that research really takes many years, in this case, almost 15 years to really be fielded and to be available to that forensic consumer.
SARAH MICHAUD: And lastly, I’d like to know where you think the technology is going. How do you see rapid DNA evolving or how has the technology evolved over the past few years? And where do you see it going?
TRACEY JOHNSON: There is a huge appeal for rapid DNA instruments. But those adoptions--the appeal of the instruments in early adoption by very well meaning law enforcement organizations has really led to some unintended consequences and, unfortunately, the loss of some forensic information, in particular situations. While systems may appear fairly mature, there is still a need to do primarily two things. And one is to work out the integration of the processing of that sample, the development of that sample, and then having that sample be included in our national, or a local, DNA database. And then they also--we need to work on improving the ability to be able to process more challenging samples. As I had mentioned, there are multiple areas that really need to be addressed before we can have good, robust, and reliable results from these types of samples. But to that end, NIJ is currently seeking to coordinate research with the FBI to investigate the processing of unknown or crime scene samples. But understand that with anything, with research and with data, it’s really just the beginning. This data then--will then turn around and be necessary to develop the standards and procedures that are really needed to be able to produce reliable and robust results for crime scene samples using a rapid DNA platform.
SARAH MICHAUD: Great. Thank you, Tracey, for talking with us today about rapid DNA technology. We thank our listeners for joining us.
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Opinions or points of view expressed in this episode represent a consensus of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any products and manufacturers discussed in this episode are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.