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With Photonic PCR you can copy DNA million times within less than 5 minutes - instead of hours that it takes today. It works by shooting light at an ultra-thin film of gold, which energizes the electrons floating at the surface of the film. The excited electrons start oscillating and are heating up the DNA. As soon as the light turns off, they relax again, and the heating stops. The researchers from BioPoets Lab at UC Berkeley want to build a cell-phone sized device that works with batteries, so copying DNA can be done everywhere. 

Technology in detail 

 Schematic showing the ultrafast photonic PCR using LED lights under a thin gold film to amplify genetic samples. Click image for detailed description. (Image by Jun Ho Son)
The setup of a photonic PCR device © 2015 Jun Ho Son - All rights reserved by UC Berkeley
To increase the speed of thermal cycling, Lee and his team took advantage of plasmonics (interaction between light and free electrons on a metal’s surface). When exposed to light, the free electrons get excited and begin to oscillate, generating heat. Once the light is off, the oscillations and the heating stop. Gold is a popular metal for this plasmonic photothermal heating because it is so efficient at absorbing light. It also does not react with biological material. 

A 120 nanometers thick gold plate was placed on a plastic chip with small wells that hold the DNA and PCR ingredients. The heat comes from the LED lights beneath. Lead author Jun Ho Son chose the LED light for its low power consumption: It requires only two or three watts, compared with the several hundred watts required by a conventional PCR machine. Moreover, the team wants to focus on using existing off-the-shelf LED. 

The researchers were able to cycle from 131 degrees to 203 degrees Fahrenheit 30 times in less than five minutes. The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation with $ 1.5m.

Light: Science & Application Paper

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About the author

View full profile Jérôme Lutz from Berlin & Munich, Germany

I like to share the great things I discover daily while researching and working in the field of Synthetic Biology.

When I talk to people about it, they often refer to Science Fiction. However, when I send them links to this wiki and they read through those pages, they start understanding that this is real and it's happening right now.