Researchers develop new method to detect, analyze DNA and RNA

August 27, 2012 by James Hataway
Yiping Zhao, director of UGA’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, uses nanotechnology to understand biological systems.

(—University of Georgia researchers have employed specially designed nanomaterials to develop a new, label-free DNA detection method that promises to reduce the cost and complexity of common genetic tests.

Their discovery may be used to help clinicians diagnose certain cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. It can detect the presence of viruses in tissue. And it can be used for a variety of forensic applications, such as paternity testing or crime scene .

Led by Yiping Zhao, professor of physics in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and director of the university's and Engineering Center, and Ralph Tripp, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine, the researchers proved the efficacy of their new DNA analysis method by experimenting with short strands of RNA called microRNA. While their approach may be used on all forms of DNA and RNA, researchers focused on microRNA because it holds great promise as a target for future therapeutics.

"MicroRNA-based therapies are under way for many diseases, but progress is confounded by the inherent difficulties in detecting small RNAs with standard techniques," Tripp said.

Their experiments used a well-established technique known as , or SERS, which allows scientists to detect specific DNA and by shooting a laser at a sample and measuring the changes in as it scatters. Zhao and his team placed their sample on top of a special film made of silver nanorods that are 1,000 times finer than the width of a human hair. The nanorods amplify the signal and improve the accuracy of their measurements.

Their research was published recently in the . In their paper the researchers describe how their detection technique identifies a critical process known as nucleic acid hybridization.

DNA is made up of two strands that wind into the famous corkscrew appearance known as the double helix. To identify an area of interest, researchers heat a mixture of DNA until the strands separate. Then, a special marker inside the solution bonds, or hybridizes, with the segment of the DNA or RNA researchers want to study.

With existing testing methods, researchers must mark the DNA with a special fluorescent label that allows them to visually see that the segments they want to study have hybridized, which increases the cost and complexity of the experiment. The new method developed at UGA requires no special marker at all.

"We show in our paper that this new approach is a simple and valid method for direct, label-free microRNA detection," Tripp said.

In addition to lowering costs and improving the accuracy of genomic testing, Zhao and his team also hope to make the technology more mobile. Current detection methods require a full laboratory, and many researchers must send their samples away and wait several weeks to receive their results.

"The motivation of the whole field is to miniaturize this sort of detection technology," said study co-author Justin Abell, a doctoral student in the UGA College of Engineering. "We want to take it directly to the source and get our readout at a point of care."

Ultimately, the researchers hope that their technique will become a new standard for DNA and RNA testing both in the research laboratory and in the field.

"If we can develop this further, we can replace any test used to detect DNA or RNA with our technique," Zhao said.

Explore further: Genetic Material under a Magnifying Glass

More information: The journal article detailing the research is available at

Related Stories

Genetic Material under a Magnifying Glass

January 28, 2008

The genetic alphabet contains four letters. Although our cells can readily decipher our genetic molecules, it isn’t so easy for us to read a DNA sequence in the laboratory. Scientists require complex, highly sophisticated ...

Ultrasensitive particles offer new way to find cancer

August 31, 2011

About 10 years ago, scientists discovered a new type of genetic material called microRNA, which appears to turn genes on or off inside a cell. More recently, they found that these genetic snippets often go haywire in cancer ...

Elusive Z- DNA found on nucleosomes

January 20, 2012

New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Cell & Bioscience is the first to show that left-handed Z-DNA, normally only found at sites where DNA is being copied, can also form on nucleosomes.

Recommended for you

Moonlighting molecules: Finding new uses for old enzymes

November 27, 2015

A collaboration between the University of Cambridge and MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca, has led researchers to identify a potentially significant new application for a well-known ...

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

Getting under the skin of a medieval mystery

November 23, 2015

A simple PVC eraser has helped an international team of scientists led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York to resolve the mystery surrounding the tissue-thin parchment used by medieval scribes to produce the first ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.