ZyGEM Speeds DNA Testing

Scientists at biotech firm ZyGEM have developed a new DNA extraction reagent based on an enzyme found in an Antarctic bacterium, which dramatically cuts the time it takes to carry out forensic DNA testing.

The Hamilton, New Zealand-based company’s first products may expedite the day when crime scene investigators will no longer need to send samples back to a lab to establish a victim or perpetrator’s identity.

The products were launched on Thursday in an event in New Zealand attended by the country’s prime minister, Helen Clark.

“Our method, because it is rapid and in a closed tube, would be ideally suited to that sort of futuristic type of onsite crime scene investigation,” ZyGEM CEO Dr. Adrian Hodgson told RedHerring.com.

The essential innovation in ZyGEM’s human DNA analysis product is the use of an enzyme that cuts the time it takes to extract DNA from a sample by at least three times that of current methods, without compromising the sample’s integrity.

Volcanic Connection

The enzyme, called EA1 proteinase, comes from a bacteria collected in 1981 from an active volcanic vent on Antarctica’s Mount Erebus.

“The particular bacterium that was found happened to have an enzyme with almost perfect properties,” said Dr. Hodgson.

“I think it’s safe to say that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to rediscover the particular organism again,” he added. “So we’ve taken the gene from that particular bacterium and put it into a workhorse bacterium which we then use to produce it for our commercial production.”

Dr. Hodgson says the DNA analysis market is currently valued at about $1 billion, with biological reagents comprising several hundred million dollars of that total.

Significant Growth

However, the market is set for significant growth, particularly in the United States as President Bush recently signed the Department of Justice Reauthorization bill. The legislation permits all arrestees’ DNA to be stored in an FBI database called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), regardless of whether they are later charged or convicted of a crime (see US Collects DNA of Arrestees).

The company, which has received initial funding from the New Zealand government and venture capital firm Endeavour Capital, has also developed products to analyze the DNA of farmyard animals and plants.

These will help the industry test for resistance to diseases such as scrapie in sheep, and increase food quality and safety, as meat can be traced back to its source. In plants, the technology could also be used to provide certification of genetically modified-free status.

The products are currently undergoing verification by several labs in New Zealand, the United States, and Europe, a necessary hurdle in the highly regulated field of forensic DNA.