Watson and Crick must be twirling on their respective helices. When the genetic pioneers discovered DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953, they set the keystone for the field of molecular biology and the potential to unravel the secrets behind genetic influence on biological chemistry. We’ve previously written about Renown Health and DRI’s landmark 2016 community health study that included genetic information. Earlier this year we covered MyoKardia’s study of PPG sensors detecting hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic disorder.

In July, University of California San Diego medical engineering researchers reported on their work with a biosensor chip that improves genetic mutation detection by at least 1,000 times. Genetic detective work looks for specific mutations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Individual mutations have unique SNP codings. Current SNP detection technology has several drawbacks including poor sensitivity, the need for amplification which requires bulky equipment, and the inability to transmit data wirelessly. The USCD team solved all of these problems.

The UCSD team explained their work in an article in Advanced Materials. They used a graphene field effect transistor (FET) with an attached double strand DNA nanotweezer. The team coded one side of the “tweezer” for a specific SNP. When DNA with the specific SNP gets near the tweezer, it binds to the side with the coding “bait.” The binding causes the tweezers to open, which in turn creates a change in the DNA’s electrical charge. This change can be detected by the graphene FET which then signals a smartphone app wirelessly.

The USCD team is now focusing on designing array chips that could detect up to hundreds of thousands of SNPs in one test. Their achievement in creating a new detection method, even with a single SNP, is immense. With validation and replication, the UCSD study has the potential to advance genetic medicine exponentially.