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Taking the microfluidic approach to nucleic acid analysis in forensics: Review and perspectives

Published:December 23, 2022DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsigen.2022.102824

      Highlights

      • Tools that enable forensic human identification at the point-of-need have the potential to expedite investigations.
      • Forensic microfluidic technologies have unique advantages and practical limitations.
      • The research and development of automated methods to mimic forensic workflows have resulted in few commercial systems.
      • The integration of existing microfluidic platforms is discussed and opportunity zones for future innovation are proposed.

      Abstract

      Forensic laboratories are universally acknowledged as being overburdened, underfunded, and in need of improved analytical methods to expedite investigations, decrease the costs associated with nucleic acid (NA) analysis, and perform human identification (HID) at the point of need (e.g., crime scene, booking station, etc.). In response, numerous research and development (R&D) efforts have resulted in microfluidic tools that automate portions of the forensic genetic workflow, including DNA extraction, amplification, and short tandem repeat (STR) typing. By the early 2000 s, reports from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) anticipated that microfluidic ‘swab-in-profile-out’ systems would be available for use at the crime scene by 2015 and the FBI’s 2010 ‘Rapid DNA’ Initiative, approved by Congress in 2017, directed this effort by guiding the development and implementation of maturing systems. At present, few fully-automated microfluidic DNA technologies are commercially available for forensic HID and their adoption by agencies interested in identification has been limited. In practice, the integration of complex laboratory processes to produce one autonomous unit, along with the highly variable nature of forensic input samples, resulted in systems that are more expensive per sample and not comparable to gold-standard identification methods in terms of sensitivity, reproducibility, and multiplex capability. This Review and Perspective provides insight into the contributing factors to this outcome; namely, we focus on the complications associated with the tremendous undertaking that is developing a sample-in-answer-out platform for HID. For context, we also describe the intricate forensic landscape that contributes to a nuanced marketplace, not easily distilled down to cases of simple supply and demand. Moving forward and considering the trade-offs associated with developing methods to compete, sometimes directly, with conventional ones, we recommend a focus shift for microfluidics developers toward the creation of innovative solutions for emerging applications in the field to increase the bandwidth of the forensic investigative toolkit. Likewise, we urge case working personnel to reframe how they conceptualize the currently available Rapid DNA tools; rather than comparing these microfluidic methods to gold-standard procedures, take advantage of their rapid and integrated modes for those situations requiring expedited identifications in an informed manner.

      Keywords

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