Automating Forensic DNA Purification to Meet Urgent Needs: Reflections on September 11, 2001

Allan Tereba (center, blue polo) works with technicians at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in September 2001 to discuss automating forensic DNA purificaiton.
Allan Tereba (center, blue polo) works with technicians at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in September 2001.

In the summer of 2000, Promega research scientist Allan Tereba was asked to develop an automated protocol for purifying DNA for forensics. His team had recently launched DNA IQ, the first Promega kit for purifying forensic DNA using magnetic beads. This was before the Maxwell® instruments, and before Promega purification chemistries were widely adaptable to high-throughput automation.

“I had my doubts about being able to do that,” Allan says. “When you’re working with STRs, small amounts of contaminant DNA are going to mess up your results. But I went ahead and tried it, and it was a challenge.”

A little over a year later, Allan was in his office when he heard on the radio that a plane had struck the North tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Shortly after, he heard the announcement that a second plane had hit the South tower.

By that point, Allan and his colleagues had successfully adapted DNA IQ to be used on the deck of a robot. Within days of the attacks, Promega scientists were supporting the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) and New York State Police in their work to identify human remains that were recovered from Ground Zero.

Thanks to the work of Allan and many other Promega scientists, Promega was prepared to offer unique solutions to urgent needs. In their own words, here are some of those scientists’ reflections.

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Flexible Automated Purification Solutions For Dealing With Urgent Needs

Implementing a new high-throughput (HT) nucleic acid purification workflow or scaling up an existing workflow presents many unique challenges. To be successful, the chemistry and liquid handler must be perfectly integrated to fit your lab’s specific needs. This involves configuring the instrument deck, optimizing the assay chemistry, and programming the instrument.

When you’re facing a sudden spike in sample throughput demand combined with unprecedented urgency, those challenges can often become overwhelming. Even in times of crisis, Promega scientists are prepared to support labs facing challenges with HT workflows, regardless of your instrumentation platform.

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It Takes a Village: Automating Plasmid Purification for iGEM

Today’s blog is guest-written by Wihan Adi, a Master’s student majoring in physics at Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen and team member of iGEM Marburg. Although his background is in nuclear and particle physics, his research interests shifted toward affordable biosensors for point-of-care cancer detection, which is how he ended up doing microbiology for iGEM.


Back in March when the iGEM season had just started, Maurice, a fellow iGEM Marburg team member, told me that he was exchanging emails with Margaretha Schwartz from Promega. Given my background as a physics student, Promega was not a household name for me at the time. “So, are you interested in automating a plasmid purification protocol?” asked Maurice. He told me that Promega was willing to supply the Wizard® MagneSil® Plasmid Purification System for this purpose; that was another name that added to my confusion.

This year, iGEM Marburg is aiming to establish a fast phototrophic organism as a synthetic biology chassis. For this goal we chose Synechococcus elongatus UTEX 2973, with a reported doubling time of 90 minutes. More specifically, we are creating an easy to use toolbox to empower rapid design testing, including genome engineering tools, self-replicating plasmid systems, natural competence and a Golden Gate-based part library. Our team chose to work on phototrophic organisms because we envision accelerating research in this particular field. (Note: Last year, Marburg’s iGEM project won the Grand Prize!)

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Overcoming Challenges When Scaling Antibody Production

Tradeoffs are a constant source of challenge in any research lab. To get faster results, you will probably need to use more resources (people, money, supplies). The powerful lasers used to do live cell imaging may well kill those cells in the process. Purifying DNA often leaves you to choose between purity and yield.

Robot performing autosamplingWorking with biologics also involves a delicate balancing act. Producing compounds in biological models rather than by chemical synthesis offers many advantages, but it is not without certain challenges. One of those tradeoffs results from scaling up; the more plasmid that is produced, the greater probability of endotoxin contamination.

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High-Throughput Purification with Experts Included

Implementing automated nucleic acid purification or making changes to your high-throughput (HT) workflow can be complicated and time-consuming. There are also many barriers to success such as challenging samples types and maintaining desirable downstream results that can add to the stress, not to mention actually getting the robotic instrumentation to do what you want it to. All of this makes it easy to understand why many labs avoid automating or own expensive instrumentation that goes unused. Continue reading “High-Throughput Purification with Experts Included”