Millions of Americans watching the O.J. Simpson trial have heard of the DNA test called PCR, for polymerase chain reaction. It's an ingenious biochemical technique for duplicating infinitesimal strands of genetic material millions of times, thus creating samples large enough to match against the DNA of a crime victim or perpetrator. Demand for PCR chemicals and equipment is now soaring. Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. and Perkin-Elmer Corp. sold hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of them last year.
The forensics market, however, may someday pale beside uses in agriculture and animal husbandry. Since last December, Applied Biosystems, a P-E division in Foster City, Calif., has sold 100 modified PCR kits to cattle-breeders, who use them to verify lineage or identify desirable genetic traits, such as marbling of the meat. In the past, such traits were compared visually, but PCR gives a faster, more precise reading.
Cattle may be just the beginning. Collectors of rare birds could use the kits to determine sex, which is difficult at an early age. Kits could also come in handy for environmental sleuths in Asia and South America. Instead of policing the rain forests for illegal lumbering, agencies could run tests to determine the exact origin of a two-by-four.