On Sunday (October 27), President Donald Trump announced that US Special Operations forces had cornered Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of the Islamic State. After such a high-profile raid, it was crucial to confirm that the man who had detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and several children, was indeed the target.
In the announcement, Trump said that “part of the genius” of those who carried out the raid was that they brought lab technicians and a previously acquired sample of Baghdadi’s DNA to conduct an “on-site test” to confirm that they had killed the right man. He went on to say, “It was a very quick call that took place about 15 minutes after he was killed and it was positive. It was ‘this is a confirmation, sir.’”
Spokespeople for the Department of Defense Special Operations were not able to share any information about the DNA testing system that Trump referred to. In a press conference on Wednesday afternoon that shared more details of the raid, General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. did not mention on-site tests, but said “DNA samples were flown with the assault force back to the staging base . . . for final DNA analysis.”
Five years ago, confirming a DNA match could have taken days. In some cases, officials might have relied on fingerprints, facial recognition, or other identifying factors, if the body was intact, rather than wait for the DNA test. To confirm Baghdadi’s identity through DNA analysis back then, the sample would have been taken to a laboratory equipped with freezers and multiple instruments that purify, quantify, and amplify the DNA. Several trained scientists would operate the equipment and interpret the results.
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Over the past few years, several companies have developed new technology that can identify a DNA match—presuming they have a confirmed sample from the suspect—within 90 minutes. Despite reports of a sample being provided from Baghdadi’s stolen underwear, McKenzie said that the matching sample was taken when Baghdadi was held at an Iraq detention center in 2004.
Richard Selden, a founder and the chief scientific officer of ANDE, a company that supplies rapid DNA tests to the military and police stations, says that the technology to speed up DNA matching—which has only been applied over the past year or two—took a decade to develop, but it’s not that different from previous methods. “It’s like the difference between a manual typewriter and a word processor,” he says. “Fundamentally, you’re dealing with the same letters the same the same rules, but what you’re doing is getting the results in a much faster much more efficient way.” The machines have also been used to identify victims of wildfires and families who arrive at the US border.
In order to develop a machine that could be taken in to the field and used by non-scientists, researchers needed to build a travel-sized laboratory that could run all of the required reactions and interpret the results automatically.
“The technology itself is very convenient, very accessible, and does not require a whole lot of training for an inexperienced operator,” says Lisa Calandro, the senior director of product management for human identification at Thermo Fisher Scientific, which also sells a rapid DNA test.
The devices use microfluidics—tiny, specially designed channels in the sample containers that guide the DNA and reagents—to perform a series of processes. DNA fragments are isolated, replicated, and analyzed to determine an individual’s DNA ID and compare it to a previous sample.
In addition to being portable and easy to use, field equipment also needs to be durable. In a normal laboratory, reagents need to be kept in freezers, and the machine used to separate fragments of DNA is so sensitive that it must be recalibrated if anyone even bumps into it. ANDE’s team developed new reagents that would be stable at room temperature. Selden says he drove around the bumpy streets of Boston in an SUV with the instrument to make sure it would stay calibrated even after being knocked around.
Both Selden and Calandro declined to speculate on the possibility of a 15-minute rapid DNA test but both companies do not see 90 minutes as a limit to how fast the technology can get.
Emma Yasinski is a Florida-based freelance reporter. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaYas24.