Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Thanks to work by scientists and engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), sub-three-minute amplification of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) via polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is now possible.

A researcher loads a sample into LLNL's new fast polymerase chain reaction (PCR) instrument
PCR is an indispensible technique in medical and biological research laboratories around the world. It allows researchers and clinicians to produce millions of copies from a single piece of DNA or RNA for use in genome sequencing, gene analysis, inheritable disease diagnosis, paternity testing, forensic identification, and the detection of infectious diseases. The standard approach to PCR typically takes about an hour, which is a vast improvement over pre-PCR techniques that required days. However, PCR for point-of-care, emergency-response or widespread monitoring applications needs to be faster still -- on the order of a few minutes.

The LLNL team created such a device and demonstrated PCR times of less than three minutes. Their work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and internal LLNL money.

The device achieves its extremely fast thermal cycling through the use of a porous material and a thin-film resistive heater, making possible heating and cooling rates of 45 degrees Celsius per second, for a thermal cycle speed of less than 2.5 seconds. The team is now working to develop a real-time-detection device. They envision a PCR instrument that can complete a test, from sample to results, in five to 10 minutes. The market for such a device would be huge. In addition to the traditional public health and medical research applications, an easy-to-use real-time PCR device would be enormously useful in the livestock, poultry, agricultural, and processed food industries for ensuring food safety.