When we heard that Osama Bin Laden had been positively identified using DNA, we wanted to know: How did they do that so quickly?

"Forensic DNA testing can be done very quickly--in a few hours," says George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Center for Computational Genetics. (Church also heads up the Personal Genome Project, which we covered on NOVA scienceNOW back in 2008.) "Typically the protocol is PCR"--that's polymerase chain reaction, a technique for making multiple copies of a piece of DNA--"from tiny amounts of sample, followed by gel separation of DNA size variants." These "size variants," which are DNA chunks of different lengths, together create a unique "fingerprint" that can be used to identify an individual.

For a blow-by-blow account of how this all could be accomplished in under five hours, check out Christie Wilcox's excellent guest blog at Scientific American.

One recent report suggested that the purported Osama Bin Laden sample was verified against tissue from his sister, which (according to the report) had been held at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) after her death in Boston last year. MGH has not yet been able to confirm any piece of that story. However, Church points out, "It had been known for years that samples of a Bin Laden relative's DNA were available."

The downside of PCR, says Church, is that it is vulnerable to contamination. "One (unlikely) way that this can go wrong is if someone accidentally or intentionally contaminates the sample with overwhelming amounts of another DNA sample."

For more on DNA and its use in forensic identification, check out this primer from the Human Genome Project.

User Comments:

I had wanted an autopsy to determine brain disease. This is something DNA can't provide.

Hmm. I'm still a bit skeptical. That burial at sea seems to have happened awfully quickly, too.

How did they get the original sample to is the better question.

i don't think laden was dead. let's wait and see, few day's latter a footage was declare by laden, he is alive. the death man his dummy.

I'm sitting here wondering how they got his DNA in the first place. I hope he's dead. . . . .

ACtually there is a way to prove his identity and it involves two not one dna test and if two family members on both his mother and paternal side would cooperate it would prove it almost conclusively. Bin Laden is a Mitochorial Dead end like most men are, and sine he is the only son by his mother and his father, all one needs to do is run a mDNA test on his mother or a maternal half sibling, and a Y chromosome analysis of one of his sons or nephrews. If both of these match, then you can say with almost a 100% certanity this is Osama Bin Ladin.

If they used family members' DNA, then doesn't that mean that a brother would "pass" the same test?

Remember, NOVA did the fake documentary about the collapse of the Twin Towers - go to Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth if you don't believe me.

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