This article is from the In-Depth Report Osama bin Laden: The Science of His End

What is 'gel electrophoresis,' and why is it so important for DNA testing in criminal cases?

Eric Fairfield is a private researcher who uses gel electrophoresis for separation of DNA molecules; he won an R&D award for the invention of a new method of gel electrophoresis. He replies:

"DNA is a charged molecule. Consequently, DNA molecules will move when an electrical field is applied to a liquid in which they are dissolved. If the liquid is a simple one--such as water with some salts in it--all the DNA molecules move at nearly the same speed. Under those conditions, it is hard to distinguish the tiny disparities in the motion of different kinds of DNA.

"If the solution is made less liquid, as in a gel, and the DNA molecules all start moving across the solution from some initial small volume--that is, from essentially the same staring point--then the molecules can move at perceptibly different speeds. Usually smaller DNA molecules move faster than larger ones. After a while, the molecules are separated by size. If the molecules fall into only a few discreet sizes, then bands (little rectangles) of DNA will appear in the gel. Each of these bands contains DNA strands of a specific size."

[Editors note: DNA fingerprinting uses gel electrophoresis to distinguish between samples of the genetic material. The human DNA molecules are treated with enzymes that chop them at certain characteristic points, thereby reducing the DNA to a collection of more manageably sized pieces. The DNA fragments are loaded into a gel and placed in an electrical field, which electrophoretically sorts the DNA fragments into various bands. These bands can be colored with a radioactive dye to make them visible to imaging techniques.]

"For individual people, the bands of DNA created through this process will have a pattern that is specific to the individual. Part of this pattern comes from the size of the DNA; part of it comes from the sequence of the DNA of a specific size.

"In forensics, suspects can be eliminated if their DNA pattern does not match the pattern of DNA molecules found at the crime scene. Other people may become suspects become if their DNA pattern matches the pattern of the person who committed the crime and if the suspect's DNA pattern is not very common. The idea behind 'not very common' is that the DNA says, in essence, 'This crime was committed by a 6'2" white male who has a scar on the left wrist, went to U.C.L.A., drives a red 1992 sports car, makes $62,000 a year and was a disc jockey in 1978.' While there may be more than one such person, it is not likely that more than one of them was at the scene of the crime at the same time."

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