Leveraging lab-on-a-chip technology and the cutting-edge genetic editing technique known as CRISPR, researchers have created a highly automated device that can identify the presence of the novel coronavirus in just a half hour. The microlab is a microfluidic chip just half the size of a credit card, containing a complex network of channels smaller than the width of a human hair.
The microlab test takes advantage of the fact that coronaviruses like SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, leaves behind tiny genetic fingerprints wherever they go in the form of strands of RNA, the genetic product of DNA. If the coronavirus’s RNA is present in a swab sample, the person from whom the sample was taken is infected.
To initiate a test, liquid from a nasal swab sample is dropped into the microlab, which uses electric fields to extract and purify any nucleic acids like RNA that it might contain. The purified RNA is then converted into DNA and then replicated many times over using a technique known as isothermal amplification.
Next, the team used an enzyme called CRISPR-Cas12 — a sibling of the CRISPR-Cas9 enzyme associated with this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry — to determine if any of the amplified DNA came from the coronavirus.