A bacterium found in a vent in the side of Antarctica’s only active volcano, Mount Erebus, is set to revolutionise DNA testing by making it much faster.

The organism uses an enzyme to protect and repair its own DNA that is damaged living in its hazardous environment.

In the lab, this same enzyme can be employed to reduce the number of steps needed to extract DNA from a biological sample, such as hair or saliva.

The microbe was discovered by Auckland University scientist Dr David Saul.

DNA testing kits based on the organism’s enzyme will be in use in 2004.

The bacterium is able to live in temperatures that would kill most other lifeforms.

It survives because it is able to repair heat damage to its own DNA using specific enzymes – proteins that speed up chemical reactions.

One particular enzyme extracted from the organism allows DNA to be taken from a crime sample in a single step rather than the existing method which can involve up to 20 complicated stages.

Conventional DNA extraction and testing can take several days. The new enzyme may cut this down to a few hours.

Reducing the number of steps required to extract DNA is vital because, at each stage, a little of the DNA is lost. This is especially important if there is not much DNA recovered in the first instance.

Dr Saul says that the new method also carries a lower risk of human contamination because it can be automated and performed with fewer steps.

He adds that he has another micro-organism, this time found living in a hot spring, which has an enzyme that could reduce the time taken to produce a DNA profile even further.

Biotech company Pacific GEM is developing the technology and plans to produce DNA testing kits for sale next year.

More here.