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This morning I saw several tweets about DNA testing and Osama Bin Laden:

“All I’m sayin is, if they took DNA samples for bin Laden, who did they match it against,& that was one ruddy fast PCR, can I have your machine?” – upulie

“Did they bring PCR machine on the site to confirm Bin Laden’s death?” – seanjeon

The US military used DNA to identify Osama Bin Laden very quickly after he was killed. How? Although we don’t have intimate knowledge of Osama’s DNA identification, here’s one way that OpenPCR thermal cycler could potentially be used in a similar situation, and how with a PCR machine and a few other tools you could try this at home.

DNA Fingerprinting Osama bin Laden


Bio: MAKE guest citizen science author Tito Jankowski works on making biotech easier to do, including developing open source tools for gel electrophoresis and PCR. Got other citizen science or garage biotech projects you want to hear more about? Comment on this article below or email him at tito at openpcr.org
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Comments

  1. VuLN says:

    Oh nice, thanks for your information!

  2. Reportedly, they also have on file DNA from one of Osama’s sisters who died of cancer a few years ago. So they could at least do a quick relationship comparison within the space of an hour or so. But, remember too that the reports didn’t hit the news cycle until about a week after the raid occurred, so that would have been plenty of time for an on-ship PCR system to make a positive ID, I would think.

  3. Alan says:

    The “they couldn’t have identified him that fast” nonsense is coming from folks who are either ignorant, politically motivated to spread misinformation, or both. Modern thermal cyclers are very fast, and DNA fingerprinting a dead body would not be the least bit challenging for a competent technician. The sample certainly isn’t limited – take as much blood as you like, he won’t object. All you need is a reasonable comparison sample or two, and given the size and well-documented relationships of bin Laden’s extended family, many of whom lived in the US for years, that wouldn’t have been much of a barrier either. We’re talking hours, not days.

    As for the location of the PCR machine, I assume it was onboard ship. Standing around making small talk with Osama’s former neighbors while running gels in a makeshift lab in his kitchen isn’t really the SEAL style. More likely, they would’ve just tossed the corpse in the chopper, dusted off, and handed him to the medical staff on the carrier before going below to grab a well-deserved beer.
    With the ID confirmed a few hours later, it was shark-feeding time.

  4. The U.S. Military has the best, and fastest, toys around.

  5. The PCR must have been faster than a speeding bullet, because otherwise the Navy SEAL team executed an unarmed and physically handicapped man before positively identifying him.

    1. Rahere says:

      They didn’t need to – the DNA test was merely corroborative, the decision was made on the basis of the Mark 1 eyeball, backed by the considerable amount of corroborative documentation found in the house.

      Which is a damned sight more than the hundreds of thousands of victims caused by Al-Quaida, directly and indirectly across the world, ever got.

      1. At any rate, we know that an innocent person wasn’t killed by mistake, because then the government would have had to come up with some bizarre excuse why the corpse couldn’t be autopsied.

  6. Matt Moore says:

    Also, I’m sure they had a bit of priority over any other currently running scans (assuming they just ran it through a database, but I would assume they’d just run it against known family members)