February 2012 Paul McCollum
Oxford Nanopore has claimed that it will be shipping a industry revolutionizing miniature DNA sequencer later this year. USB powered electronics initiate and monitor a biochemical process that surpasses the current more pedestrian modalities by geometric scales. Current DNA sequencing used a very clever but lengthy process to decode genomic strands.
Due to the (previous) lack of tools that could manipulate DNA base pair at time, hacker-esque techniques were dreamed up that would break down the codes in ways that we could observe. Take a hard drive, make a million copies of it and smash it to pieces using different sized hammers. Pick up the pieces of from each copy such as “Meet me”, “me at”, “at the” and “the park”. With a little more chemistry and some gel electrophoresis magic you eventually stitch together “Meet me at the park”.
The Oxford Nanopore MinION DNA Sequencer system uses a tiny bio-mechanical sieve and some crafty enzymes to basically pull the entire DNA thread through a tiny hole. As each base pair passes through, it electrically tests each base pair one at a time, consecutively, contiguously. After today the old method will seem like arcane magic when you can just sequence an individual strand. Although portable and USB powered these will by no means be instant household items. The DNA sample preparation prior to putting them into the MinION will likely still need to be done in a laboratory setting.
It is however at this point that genetic privacy paranoiacs should start to freak out. The estimated $900 cost of the MinION will mean that being asked to submit a DNA sample as often as your birth date could be around the corner. Pray you aren’t predisposed towards something expensive or you may have trouble getting insurance.