The New Scientist reports on a novel DNA duplication technique called helicase-dependent amplification, or HDA, that promises to speed up and simplify the process required to duplicate (amplify) small amounts of DNA so that you do useful stuff with it. If this works out, DNA-based technologies will start to invade our lives in more and more obvious ways. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the current technique used for identifying trace amounts of DNA. PCR was worth a Nobel prize back in the day, but it’s time to turn up the heat.
Crime forensics will benefit dramatically when DNA testing becomes as easy as dusting for fingerprints. And diagnostics for viral infections will become commonplace. Doctors have always been able to culture bacteria (like strep) to see if you have the infection in question, but you can’t really culture viruses. Because of this, viruses are almost always diagnosed by elimination. But something like HDA makes it easy to “just look” and see if the virus is present. The porn industry already uses PCR to test for HIV. HDA may permit cheap diagnostics for various strains of flu and the common cold. This in turn may let us prescribe less antibiotics; you don’t need an antibiotic if I can tell you for sure that you’ve got a virus.
This all underscores one of the main reasons I’m optimistic for rapid progress in molecular biology. What we’re trying to understand, the living cell, is a already a competent information processing system. We just need to learn how to talk to it. Don’t blow up the natives and pick through their remains trying to divine their thoughts. Just walk up and ask.