Osama bin Laden and the DNA match

By Razib Khan | May 2, 2011 5:10 pm

How they determine Osama bin Laden really is Osama bin Laden:

Once samples from all sources are in hand, analysts isolate a bit of DNA from each sample, make lots of copies of it, and then process the copies through a machine that analyzes genetic markers — DNA fingerprints — that have been passed down through a subject’s family. Typically, Bieber said, DNA tests examine around 15 of these markers.

It typically takes several hours to complete each step of the analysis process, Bieber said, though he noted that in high-profile cases like this one, law enforcement agencies might already have genetic profiles of the relatives available — which means they’d only have to complete one additional test.

I checked and it seems that there are paternity testing outfits that offer one day turnaround. So I guess it’s not implausible that they could have pulled this off. I assume they still use variable number tandem repeats for DNA profiling?

Update: Yeah, short tandem repeats.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
MORE ABOUT: DNA, Osama bin Laden
  • miko

    20-30 minutes DNA extraction
    3h PCR reaction
    30 to separate the SLPs or RFLPs

    I genotyped 6 nematode strains between lunch and 5pm today, same thing. I read they have his sister’s tissue samples.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ah, thanks! totally doable then.

    yeah, she had tissue samples in boston.

  • Rich

    Little known fact: VNTR are named after Craig Venter. Lesser known fact: the J stands for Jenny.

  • Eze

    It’d be cool if his DNA sample is released on the public domain, so that genome bloggers can analyze it too. I bet he belonged to haplogroup J1 (~80% in Yemenis). :)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    eze, i thought of that too. though his mom is syrian. i think we could project him between the druze and yemeni cluster!

  • ihateaphids

    If they use STRs (available in standardized kits for forensics) the whole process could be ~4 hours in a dedicated situation (I imagine OBL generates greater dedication than your typical knife wielding maniac)…turnarounds are slow because of volume, not length of lab time per sample

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #6, yeah, STRs is wut they used.

  • Zinjanthropus

    Yes, but what is his maternal haplogroup? I assume that was his full-, not half-, sister in Boston?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    half. what i read indicates that bin laden was the only child of his mother + father. but these polygamous saudi males often seen pretty lax about accounting for female children, so who knows?

  • ackbark

    Forgive me, I am an utter civilian in this, but I think it’s always right to presume government agencies like the NSA have technology that’s around fifteen years, or better, ahead of what’s available to ordinary mortals,

    so, could they have something that tests the DNA right on the spot? Without having to get the body back to the aircraft carrier?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    , but I think it’s always right to presume government agencies like the NSA have technology that’s around fifteen years, or better, ahead of what’s available to ordinary mortals,

    for reals? you believe this?

  • biologist

    The NSA might have awesome software and computer hardware, but they don’t have pocket electrophoresis equipment.

    However, the required (full-scale) equipment is trivial compared to the cost of military hardware. They could build a forensics lab for a few hundred thousand dollars in a small room anywhere.

    There’s unlikely to be anything meaningful inferred from the STR allele size patterns other than individual identity.

  • Zinjanthropus

    Of course, this discussion assumes that bin Laden did not die years ago, as eerily affirmed by Benazir Bhutto in an interview with David Frost shortly before she was herself assassinated.

  • Zinjanthropus

    Point of information: Her comments are right here.

  • Kimberly Peacock

    They have been monitoring the situation for months. Most likely they verified his DNA before the raid. They had someone on the inside.

    Also if one is looking for matches versus exclusions, is that not a faster method?

    Instead of standard methodology you could create a test specifically for the individual.

    You already have a key to match from. In this way similar to pgp crypto.

    Expensive to develop test but not a barrier to the government and much quicker in processing.

  • Kimberly Peacock

    A biological test set to match key areas could be almost instantaneous in results.

    (LOL) Viral Identification

  • DNA Analyst

    The DNA used for Bin Laden’s identification would be his nuclear DNA. This is different structurally and in inheritance from mitochondrial DNA. Mito DNA is inherited solely from the mother, where as nuclear DNA is from both parents. Therefore, all siblings from the same mother will have the same mito DNA profile. Consequently, mito DNA cannot be used for sure shot DNA identification. So, his haplogroup, which is determined from mito DNA, was most likely not investigated.
    Additionally, in such a high profile case, a DNA profile can be obtained in under 5 hours.

  • Matt

    And I thought the CSI TV series were exaggerating how fast they could come up with DNA matches. I will never doubt their ability to enhance tiny reflections off low-res video again!

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    #4, I’m way more excited about that idea than I probably have any right to be.

  • ackbark

    for reals? you believe this?

    For hardware, yes.

    I was wondering if it could hold true for biosciences.

  • miko

    “For hardware, yes.”

    Lab-on-a-chip type devices, based on microfluidics, are already published that can do things like simple molecular reactions, PCR, and electrophoresis much faster and with smaller volumes. A calculator-sized device where you put in a little saliva or blood and get out a profile in a few hours is possible with current materials and technology. Size is not the problem (you’re working with nano-microliters) but the speed of Taq polymerase limits the PCR step. However, if your detection of PCR products becomes much more sensitive, you need fewer PCR rounds.

    There is no way Navy SEALS are carrying this around, however. Easier to have a small traditional molbio lab at a base or on a boat and have the grunts bring the body bits.

  • dmach

    Based on the genomics tech available commercially and the current phenomenal rate of development, with stuff that was 15 years more advanced the military could sequence OBL’s whole genome in about 1 min using a device the size of a matchbox :-). They could also hoover up every last scrap of biological material in the complex and profile it instantly a la GATTACA. They have the same genomics tech that we do – maybe a little behind the curve if their preliminary screen was based on STRs and not SNPs.
    Actually, I’m sure they would have taken obvious biological evidence for later profiling (cigarette butts, used stamps etc.)

  • Molecular Biologist

    Might have used Real Time PCR indeed…..


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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