DNA-based detector could precisely track subatomic particles

A detector consisting of a forest of DNA strands could track how subatomic particles move more precisely than existing devices.

Current state-of-the-art particle detectors can sense the mass of particles with incredibly high precision, but tracking the paths of particles through a detector isn’t always easy.

Ciaran O’Hare at the University of Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues think a DNA-based version could help. The idea, first proposed by a different group in 2012, promises to allow researchers to track the path a particle takes with nanometre precision.

The detector would consist of a multitude of DNA strands hanging, like stalactites, above a collecting device. When a particle with enough energy crosses the detector, it will cut through several DNA strands at specific points along each strand’s genetic sequence. The severed tips of DNA can then be collected, and O’Hare and his team propose analysing them to establish the exact point that the DNA “stalactite” was severed.

Because the DNA molecule is so densely packed with genetic information, it allows the severance point to be established to within nanometres. Doing the same thing for many severed DNA strands will give the ability to trace in three-dimensions the path a particle took through the detector.

O’Hare and his colleagues have simulated this on computers using a simplified model without the collection apparatus. The aim was to test whether the detector might work in the real world. “We were doing a first initial investigation into this [detector],” says O’Hare. “We were able to figure out that for most different particle types, you’re able to tell the direction of the particle really, really well, and that’s all down to that nanoscale information [in the DNA].”

Provided they have enough energy, the detector could trace the paths taken by particles for which direction of travel is a key piece of information, such as proposed candidates for dark matter, says O’Hare.

There are still technical challenges to overcome before the detector can be made to work. For instance, it is necessary to ensure the hanging DNA strands don’t stick to one another and that severed strands are properly collected.

“All of the steps of building this detector have been done in isolation, but they’ve never been done in conjunction,” says O’Hare. But a working prototype could probably be built in a couple of years, he says.

“The idea of using DNA as a detector sounds bonkers at first, but the proposal is actually really exciting, particularly as a potential way to study dark matter,” says Harry Cliff at the University of Cambridge.

“In the past, new ways of detecting particles have revolutionised our understanding of the subatomic world – take the invention of the cloud chamber for instance – so perhaps DNA-based detectors could have a substantial impact,” he says.


O’Hare, C.A.J., Matsos, V.G., Newton, J. et al. Particle detection and tracking with DNA. Eur. Phys. J. C 82, 306 (2022). DOI: 10.1140/epjc/s10052-022-10264-6

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post