Oh, And One More Thing: A Wowser Moment in DNA Sequencing

2/21/12Follow @xconomy

[Updated and corrected, 10:15 am PT] Steve Jobs used to love being on stage, getting the audience in the palm of his hand. Famously, he’d say, “Oh, and one more thing,” to build suspense right before delivering some stunning line about a new Apple product. Last week, that same showmanship was at work in a hotel ballroom off the Gulf coast of Florida, where a buttoned-down Brit delivered a message heard around the world of DNA sequencing.

The scene was at the Advances in Genome Biology & Technology (AGBT) conference, held at the remote site of Marco Island, FL, near the Everglades. This little affair of just more than 1,000 people draws the who’s who of the genomics world, and a mad scrum of technology companies making new machines that are constantly getting better/faster/cheaper at the sequencing of DNA.

The big headline from Marco Island this year came on Friday from Clive Brown, the chief technology officer of U.K.-based Oxford Nanopore Technologies. Just as he was getting toward the end of his presentation of what’s new from Oxford, Brown uttered the familiar “Oh, and one more thing” phrase. He then reached into his pocket, and pulled out a device the size of a USB memory stick. This little gizmo, called MinION, was said to cost less than $900, and can deliver 150 megabases of DNA sequences per hour. A larger Oxford system, GridION, was being designed so when configured a certain way, it could sequence an entire human genome in 15 minutes. [Corrects earlier story, which confused MinION and GridION]. Sequencing has been on an incredible innovation run the past five years, but this takes the game to a new level. Only one month ago, sequencing powerhouses Illumina and Life Technologies said they were on track to make instruments that can sequence whole genomes for $1,000 in one day by year’s end.

George Church, the DNA sequencing pioneer at Harvard University, told Forbes’ Matthew Herper that calling the device a game-changer “is an understatement.” Analysts quickly rushed out reports on how this new technology could potentially disrupt the market again.

Todd Smith

“It’s definitely stirring conversation,” says Todd Smith, the founder of Geospiza, a DNA analysis company acquired by PerkinElmer last year, who attended the Marco Island conference. “When someone shows a DNA sequencer the size of a USB drive, it kind of makes you want to run out and buy 1,000 computers to scale up production.”

Part of what’s interesting here is the way the technology has fundamentally changed, a bit like when photography went from film to digital. Today’s DNA sequencing market leaders—Illumina and Life Technologies—use common polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques to amplify DNA in a biological sample. They tag the individual units of DNA with fluorescent markers. And they use sophisticated cameras to read the flow of those fluorescent tags. The PCR requires laborious sample preparation, fluorescent tags add some cost per individual DNA unit, and the cameras make for expensive capital equipment.

Oxford Nanopore is approaching DNA sequencing in a different way altogether. As I wrote here in a feature story in February 2010, it doesn’t require any PCR amplification of a sample, any fluorescence, or a camera. Instead, the company’s machine runs the sample through very small (one-nanometer wide) pores. As the DNA passes through these nanopores, the Oxford machine records the electrical charge that’s associated with each individual base pair of DNA, like a signature.

The Oxford machine still isn’t ready for prime time, although … Next Page »

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