Rapid DNA Identification: Changing The Paradigm
Authors: Richard Selden, MD, PhD  |  James H. Davis, FBI SAC (Ret.)
ANDE Corporation, Waltham, MA

Although DNA evidence has assisted many cases over the past two decades, the impact of DNA on law enforcement is still in its infancy. With the passage of the Rapid DNA Act of 2017, thousands of police booking stations will use Rapid DNA to test arrestees. In parallel, influential Chiefs and Sheriffs are already beginning to utilize Rapid DNA at the crime scene. ANDE Corporation has been dedicated to developing Rapid DNA—defined as the generation of DNA IDs of cheek swabs or forensic samples outside the lab by non-technical operators in less than two hours—because we believe that DNA can play an even greater role in making the world a safer place. Rapid DNA has the potential to impact 100-fold more cases than possible with today’s lab-based system, a true paradigm shift leading to significant reductions in crime. Rapid DNA promises to be the most important new tool to be added to law enforcement’s armamentarium in decades, and this paper provides an overview of the major applications of Rapid DNA.


The Rationale for Rapid DNA
The DNA Identification Act of 1994 established the FBI’s authority to build the National DNA Index System (NDIS), and, by October 1998, the system became operational. For the next 20 years, DNA testing has been limited to approximately 200 accredited forensic labs. The unintended consequences of the lab-centric approach to DNA testing have been delays in evidence processing and the development of substantial backlogs. Laboratory processing of DNA samples can take weeks to months—sometimes even years. Furthermore, the White House has estimated that over 400,000 Sexual Assault Kits are backlogged[1] and researchers have estimated that over 100,000 cases are backlogged[2].  The long lag between submission of forensic samples and the availability of DNA results (as well as the possibility that results will never be generated) has led agents and officers to submit fewer samples per crime scene or not to submit samples at all. Consequently, DNA plays only a limited role in the investigation of crime today, almost entirely due to the time-consuming, labor-intensive, and costly requirement to process all samples in laboratories. The problem can best be summarized as follows: the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System, the FBI’s program of support for criminal justice DNA databases as well as the software used to run these databases) has assisted more than 387,385 investigations since 1998, but well over 200 million crimes have occurred during this time period—an impact of less than 0.2%. CODIS has been spectacularly successful in introducing complex technology into law enforcement—Rapid DNA offers a means to dramatically enhance its impact.


How Rapid DNA Works
Rapid DNA identification is the real-time generation of a DNA ID in less than two hours, performed by nontechnical users outside the laboratory. DNA IDs, also referred to as “DNA Fingerprints” or “Short Tandem Repeat (STR) profiles”, are generated using the same basic steps whether in a lab or a Rapid DNA instrument. The first step is to break open the cells in a forensic sample, the second is to make copies of 20 specific regions of the chromosomes, and the third is to determine the size of those 20 specific regions. It is the variation in size of these 20 regions that is characteristic of a given individual—a DNA ID is many orders of magnitude more accurate than any other biometric. A typical DNA ID would have a random match probability—the chance of another person by chance having the identical DNA ID--of less than 1 in a trillion trillion.


Although the biochemical steps to generate a DNA ID are the same in a Rapid DNA instrument and the lab, the Rapid DNA approach is much more straightforward[3]. A forensic sample is swabbed, up to five swabs are place into a chip, and the chip is placed into the ANDE instrument (Figure 1). All required chemical reagents are pre-loaded into the chip, and, following processing, the DNA ID is analyzed automatically, yielding immediately useful results. Less than two hours after loading the chip, the DNA IDs are completed. Using software provided by ANDE or by the FBI, the DNA ID is used to generate an actionable result (see below). The ANDE instrument is ruggedized to a military standard (Figure 2) for transport and use in the field—it is being used by USSOCOM around the world for counter-terrorism missions and has been demonstrated in the field for disaster victim identification. The two major applications in law enforcement are arrestee testing and criminal investigations.


The Supreme Court, The Rapid DNA Act of 2017 and Arrestee DNA Testing
In 2009, Alonzo Jay King was arrested for assault in Wicomico County, Maryland. Under Maryland law, King was required to provide a cheek swab for DNA analysis. The cheek swab was processed (using conventional DNA techniques) and was found to match a cold case—a rape of a 53-year-old woman that had occurred in 2003. Ultimately King was convicted of the rape and sentenced to life in prison without parole. He moved to suppress the DNA match, arguing that the collection of his cheek swab on arrest violated his Fourth Amendment right to be protected against an unreasonable search and seizure. Maryland v King[4] was eventually heard by the Supreme Court, and in a landmark 2013 decision, the Court determined that “taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Today, 30 states have arrestee DNA collection laws, with certain states requiring testing of all arrestees and others limiting collection based on the charging of certain crimes.


The FBI had been preparing for Rapid DNA Identification, including funding the development of the ANDE system since 2009. The Supreme Court decision accelerated their activities. These were highlighted by the development of RDIS (Rapid DNA Index System), a part of CODIS designed to allow Rapid DNA results generated from arrestees in police stations to search the federal DNA database. The FBI’s vision for Rapid DNA is to enable the database search to occur while the arrestee is still in custody. If the search results in a match to an unsolved crime, the agency that submitted the sample that matched will receive an Unsolicited DNA Notification (UDN[5]). Today, the months required for labs to perform DNA IDs means that arrestees are frequently released long before matches are made—free to commit further crimes. With RDIS, Rapid DNA Identification will advance investigations and efficiently identify recidivist arrestees.


In parallel with the development of RDIS, the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 made its way through Congress. Passed by unanimous consent in both the House and Senate, the bill was signed into law this past August. The new law permits FBI- (specifically National DNA Index System- [NDIS]) approved Rapid DNA systems to be placed in police stations, used to generate DNA IDs from arrestees, and integrated with RDIS to allow real-time matching of arrestee DNA IDs to unsolved crimes. Implementation is slated to begin later this year—the FBI is expected to announce quality guidelines for operational training and routine system testing and several states will initiate pilots to ensure their new software and IT infrastructure functions seamlessly with agency work-flow and the Rapid DNA system.


Rapid DNA at the Crime Scene
The Rapid DNA Act is limited to testing the cheek swabs of arrestees, but the ANDE Rapid DNA system can process a wide range of forensic samples, including blood, oral samples (e.g. cans, bottles, chewing gum, cigarette butts), and tissue (e.g. bone, muscle, teeth). Accordingly, a number of agencies have initiated programs to utilize Rapid DNA in day-to-day investigative work[6],[7] (Figure 2). Implementing Rapid DNA testing in the field provides tremendous advantages to law enforcement agencies in the preservation of evidence. In serious crimes, understanding the evidence in hand and having the ability to identify the most likely criminal scenarios will lead to more efficient investigations. Confirming solid DNA information prior to releasing crime scenes back to property owners will prevent needless loss of evidence. There are two basic approaches to using the ANDE system at the crime scene:


  • Evidence to Suspect Matching. DNA IDs are generated from evidence at the crime scene and matched against DNA IDs generated from suspects. No DNA database is required, and the matching is done automatically by ANDE’s FAIRS application. The advantage to this approach is that suspects can be ruled-in or ruled-out quickly, focusing the investigation. With results available in two hours or less, DNA evidence becomes an integral part of an investigation, greatly enhancing the efficiency of investigative efforts.


  • Evidence to Database Matching. DNA IDs are generated from evidence at the crime scene and searched against local and state databases. Instead of waiting for months or years for lab DNA data, Rapid DNA IDs have the potential to dramatically reduce the time to solving the case and the cost of the investigation. Consortiums of local agencies can join forces to share crime scene DNA data. Even distant agencies can work together to optimize the use of Rapid DNA data. If a given suspect operates across multiple jurisdiction (as if often the case in human, arms, or drug trafficking), FAIRS allows connections to be made.


Finally, there are two additional considerations in using Rapid DNA in criminal investigations. First, ANDE recommends that evidentiary swabs are also collected and sent to the lab for conventional processing. Until Rapid DNA is broadly used in law enforcement and has gone through Daubert/Frye hearings, it is prudent to have the lab verify DNA hits. Second, the Federal DNA database cannot be searched using results obtained outside the lab. However, in practice, many offenders continue their activities within the same or neighboring jurisdictions, allowing for the use of state and local databases to successfully accomplish matching and identification.


The Inevitability and Potential Impact of Rapid DNA
Available today, Rapid DNA is a scientifically sound and operationally effective new tool that empowers public safety professionals to substantially reduce crime. DNA IDs can now be generated outside the lab, in police stations, crime scenes, vans, trucks, and cars, booking centers, jails/prisons, coroners’/medical examiners’ offices, mass casualty sites, borders and ports, and embassies. The FBI’s major efforts to bring DNA testing to arrestees and the military’s efforts to do the same in counter-terrorism operations means that DNA identification will transform from a somewhat obscure process to one that is conducted routinely and conducted almost everywhere. After a 20-year history of law enforcement applications, it would be unwise to expect that this transition will be immediate. But beginning today and over the next several years, Rapid DNA will change the paradigm in law enforcement—more crimes will be solved more quickly, and recidivism and overall crime rates and victimization will be dramatically reduced. Ultimately, we will look back on the last 20 years as the early days of DNA in law enforcement—the major impact on crime reduction will be driven by Rapid DNA.



Figure 1. The ANDE Rapid DNA Identification System. Cheek swabs or forensic samples are collected using the ANDE swab (left). The swab holder contains desiccant to dry out the sample for storage, and the cap contains an embedded RFID tag for sample tracking. The A-Chip (center) is a single use, disposable consumable which includes all reagents, materials, and waste containment required to perform fully-automated generation of DNA IDS. All required reagents are factory pre-loaded on the chip, which can be stored for up to 6-months at room temperature. Forensic samples are loaded into the chip, and the chip is inserted into the ruggedized ANDE instrument (right). There is no direct contact between the instrument and the sample or the reagents; all liquids within the chip are driven by pneumatic pressure. This closed system design, coupled with swabs that lock and seal into the chips and RFID tracking, minimizes the potential for contamination. All data processing and interpretation is performed by the on-board Expert System, and a non-technical user can be trained to operate the system in less than an hour.



Figure 2. The ANDE instrument in its transport case. The instrument has been certified to MIL STD 810-G for shock and vibration, critical for field-forward Rapid DNA Identification.

About the Authors:

Richard F. Selden, MD, PhD

Dr. Richard Selden is responsible for the conception and development of the ANDE Rapid DNA system, the first and only such system to receive FBI National DNA Index Approval. He founded ANDE in 2004 with a vision to move DNA analysis from sophisticated laboratories to the field, where it could have daily impact on forensic identification in military, law enforcement, and homeland security applications. Since then, he has worked closely with thought leaders in the FBI, DoD, and DHS to define system requirements and Rapid DNA ConOps. He received his BA degree from Harvard College, MA and PhD degrees in Genetics from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and MD from Harvard Medical School.  He trained as a pediatrician at the Massachusetts General Hospital and served as an Instructor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of 38 peer-reviewed publications and the inventor of 43 US patents.

James H. Davis, Vice President – Government Affairs
Jim is the vice president of Government Affairs for ANDE, a company that is seeking to change the paradigm related to the use of DNA in law enforcement and public safety. Previously, Jim was a principal in Public Safety Ventures, LLC, a Longmont, Colorado, based venture capital firm focused on public safety technology. He is also the founder and chief executive officer of Ascent Risk Solutions, LLC, a Denver-based security and risk management consulting firm. Prior to starting his consulting practice, Jim served as a member of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s Cabinet as Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) and Homeland Security Advisor to the Governor. In that capacity, Jim led a department of over 1,600 employees and was responsible for the safety and security of those who live and play in Colorado through direct leadership and oversight of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the Colorado State Patrol, the Division of Criminal Justice, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control and the Colorado School Safety Resource Center. Under Jim’s leadership, the state successfully integrated homeland security, emergency management and wildland firefighting into CDPS. This new structure resulted in more coordinated and effective responses to emergencies such as the High Park, Waldo Canyon, Royal Gorge and Black Forest fires, as well as the unprecedented flooding that occurred across Colorado in September of 2013. Before working for Governor Hickenlooper, Jim retired after 26 years in the FBI. His last assignment was as Special Agent in Charge of the Denver Division of the FBI and was responsible for all investigative, intelligence and administrative operations for the FBI in Colorado and Wyoming. His career highlights included overseeing the investigation and disruption of an al-Qaeda terrorist plot led by Najibullah Zazi in 2009, serving as the senior federal law enforcement official for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, directing a four year undercover operation that resulted in the conviction of over two dozen public officials and organized crime figures in Chicago and ten years service as a SWAT operator. Also during his time in the FBI, Jim served a total of almost two years in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism. Jim personally led the FBI team responsible for the initial processing of Saddam Hussein after his capture in December 2003.

Jim has served on boards and commissions on both a state and national level. He was the Chair of the National Governors’ Association Governors’ Homeland Security Advisors Council, the Colorado
Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, and the Colorado Homeland Security Senior Advisory Committee. He was a member of the US Criminal Intelligence Coordination Council and the IACP’s
Committee on Terrorism. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Mizel Institute in Denver and the Board of Directors of the Denver Police Foundation. Jim holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting from Michigan State University and is a Certified Public Accountant in the State of Illinois.



[1] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/16/fact-sheet-investments-reduce-national-rape-kit-backlog-and-combat-viole

[2] https://www.nij.gov/topics/forensics/lab-operations/evidence-backlogs/Pages/forensic-evidence-backlog.aspx

[3] Grover et al (2017). FlexPlex27—highly multiplexed rapid DNA identification for law enforcement, kinship, and military applications. Int J Legal Med (2017) 131:1489–1501.  DOI 10.1007/s00414-017-1567-9

[4] US Supreme Court. MARYLAND v. KING. 12-207. June 3, 2013.


[6] http://miami.cbslocal.com/2017/08/16/miami-beach-police-rapid-dna-testing/

[7] https://www.click2houston.com/video/chief-discusses-2017-houston-crime-stats