Handheld DNA reader revolutionary and democratising, say scientists

Handheld DNA reader revolutionary and democratising, say scientists

New palm-sized, MiniION sequencer, costing around $1,000, designed to analyse DNA to help track disease outbreaks, check food and offer ‘the democratisation of sequencing’

Ian Sample Science editor Thursday 15 October 2015 09.43 EDT

An inexpensive handheld device that can read strands of DNA has been hailed as revolutionary by scientists who tested the product.

The palm-sized sequencer gives researchers the power to analyse DNA almost anywhere, and could help track disease outbreaks, run checks on food, and combat the trafficking of endangered animals.

The gadget marks a major step towards what Mark Akeson, a co-inventor at the University of California Santa Cruz, called “the democratisation of sequencing”, where anyone can gather and process DNA samples for themselves.

Scientists have scores of projects in mind, but some future uses of the technology will inevitably be controversial. More advanced versions of the DNA reader could, for example, be used to mimic tests in the film Gattaca, where stands of hair are analysed to assess the genetic suitability of potential space flight personnel from an elite group.

The MiniION DNA device resembles a large mobile phone. Photograph: Nanopore Technologies

The 10cm-long, 90g device, named MinION by its British developers, Oxford Nanopore, has already been used by some scientists. In April, a team in Guinea read the genomes of 14 Ebola samples within 48 hours of them being taken from patients. Early next year, astronauts are due to use gadget to read DNA for the first time on the International Space Station.

“This is so revolutionary,” said David Buck at the Oxford Genomics Centre. “If you’re a fan of Star Trek, you can think of it as getting close to having a tricorder in your hand.”

In a report published on Thursday, an international team of researchers, including Buck, describe a series of experiments that put MinION through its paces. Though an earlier prototype suffered from technical glitches, they found the latest version performed well.

The device is not designed to read very long genomes, such as the 3bn letters that make up the instruction book for human life, nor read them with the accuracy of one of the small car-sized machines found in major genetics labs. But it can quickly identify bacteria and viruses from their DNA, tell one strain from another, and spot different gene variants in sections of human genetic code.

For now, the handheld reader is mostly in the hands of academics. To prepare samples for analysis still takes two hours of lab work. The material is then put into a flow cell on the device which detects individual DNA bases as they pass through a tiny nanopore. To identify the sequence, the MinION is plugged into a laptop that checks the DNA against a database.

Scientists pay $1,000 (£650) for a MinION and an extra $1000 for each new flow cell they need.

The advance means that scientists in the field will no longer have to take samples from people, animals, or the environment, and send them back to a lab to have the DNA read on machines that can take days to return results. The faster turnaround time means, for example, that health workers could know within minutes if a patient has Ebola, or a bird carries a new strain of avian flu.

“The exciting thing about this technology is that it simply hasn’t been possible to pack a DNA sequencer in your suitcase before now,” said Camilla Ip, a co-author on the latest study at the Oxford Genomics Centre.

Ip believes that people will soon be connecting MinIONs to smartphones, and with Oxford Nanopore due to offer a pay-as-you-go pricing model, that could transform access to genetic testing. “If anyone had the ability to do DNA sequencing with a mobile phone with attachable DNA sequencer, what could you do with it?” she said.

If that pans out, the possibilities are almost endless. GPs could analyse patients’ breath to identify bacteria that are making them ill. Health workers could use them to hunt for reservoirs of drug-resistant microbes in hospitals. Animal hairs and skin could be analysed to catch poachers and traffickers of endangered animals. Inspectors at fish markets could verify what fish is being sold. In the water-cooling towers of office buildings, you could install a device to scan for the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease.

But that is not all. “There will be undoubtedly be Gattaca-style apps which, given a hair, will tell you the genetic compatibility of a potential boy or girlfriend, although doing so is fraught with ethical issues of data interpretation,” Ip said.

“In a few years’ time, people who may be several steps removed from basic genomic research, like teachers in a classroom, could be using this device to teach science in new, exciting ways that have never been possible before,” she added.


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