As growing numbers of DIY “biohackers” can attest, extracting DNA from cells is an easy process. And you don’t need anything special to do it: various household products, like soap and isopropyl alcohol, have the chemical properties required. For NOVA’s upcoming program “Cracking Your Genetic Code,” PBS has made a short promotional video demonstrating how you can draw your DNA out from a sample of cheek cells, and, with the help of a little food coloring, actually see it yourself.
The three steps are pretty much exactly what scientists do when extracting DNA in the lab. First, you collect cells in salt water, which is similar to buffer solutions used in labs. Then, break them open with soap (in the lab, a detergent like Triton-X), which disturbs the molecules of the cell and nuclear membranes so the DNA can leak out. Lastly, use alcohol to separate the DNA from the salt water: Once in the alcohol, which is less polar than water, the DNA will form clumps and precipitate out, becoming visible as clusters of white strings.
The video is a neat reminder that what happens in labs isn’t magic: it’s just basic chemistry.