WCU installs new DNA sequencing equipment

The studies that forensic science faculty members are planning for Western Carolina University’s new next-generation DNA sequencer could help introduce the technology into crime laboratory casework.

WCU acquired and recently completed installation of a GS Junior System, an instrument that Roche Diagnostic Corp. launched globally in May.

The instrument generates significantly more DNA information from a test sample than the fluorescence-based chemistries and equipment that have been used for years in crime laboratories, but validation studies must be conducted before the new technology can be reliably used in criminal investigations, said Mark Wilson, director of WCU’s Forensic Science Program.

“The instrument is most common in genome laboratories and has not yet made its debut in forensic science, but it’s just a matter of time,” said Wilson. “There is a lot of discussion in the forensic science community about how to integrate this technology into casework. We hope to initiate some of the validation studies at WCU that are required for this kind of equipment to be introduced into crime laboratories so that the benefits of the technology can be realized.”

The instrument developed by 454 Life Sciences uses light signals to generate DNA sequence information on a very fine scale, said Wilson. Specifically, the equipment’s charge-coupled device, or CCD camera, takes pictures of light emitted from microscopic wells containing the DNA sequencing reagents. The pictures generated resemble a snowy TV screen, with each pixel representing a separate DNA sequencing reaction, said Wilson. The small pieces of DNA sequence are collected and then stitched together using computer programs to build larger sequences such that investigators can compare the results to other DNA sequences.

“This approach assists with the difficult task of evaluating mixtures of different DNA sequences, such as those found in an evidentiary sample, or those found in soil from bacteria in the Great Smoky Mountains,” said Wilson.

The sequencer will be available for use in research by WCU faculty in a range of disciplines, including biology and chemistry, and students will benefit from becoming familiar with the equipment, said Wilson.

“Our students will be exposed to a technology that is just now coming into the forefront,” said Wilson. “They will gain valuable experience that is not offered in many undergraduate programs, especially in forensic science.”

Brittania Bintz, a forensic research scientist at WCU, said it is very exciting to get to work with such advanced technology at WCU.

The university also recently acquired a state-of-the-art DNA sequencer called an Illumina 2e. Installation and training on the Illumina instrument are scheduled for later this fall.

“The combination of these two instruments will allow expanded biological research into DNA variation on a wide scale and also permit direct comparisons of the strengths and relative weaknesses in the two platforms,” said Wilson.