Tiny Thumb Drive Can Decode an Entire Human Genome in Six Hours

By Kristen Philipkoski on at

It was a major breakthrough in 1995: After 13 months, scientists 13 finally sequenced the entire genome of a bacteria. These days, a gene-slinger can do it in a few seconds. With a USB stick.

It's called the MinION, and the scientists at Oxford Nanopore Technologies who built it say the disposable device will be for sale later this year for around £570. Doctors could carry them around in their lab coats, identifying viruses and disease genes on the spot.

The virus they sequenced to show the device works contains 5,000 genetic base pairs (DNA is made of a series of nucleotides represented by the letters A, C, T and G, which pair up to form the double helix), and they say the device could complete an entire human genome in about six hours. That's stunning when you consider that the Human Genome Project took 13 years and cost nearly £2 billion to do the same thing.

For the Human Genome Project, scientists broke apart the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome into tiny snippets, because each one had to be amplified to for scientists to make out the letters. The most laborious part of completing the task was putting all the pieces back together. The MinION eliminates the amplification step by using an enzyme solution that binds to the end of each DNA strand. An electric current sucks the enzymes and DNA into hundreds of 10-micrometre wells in a membrane at the bottom of the solution. Each of those contains even smaller pores, just 10 nanometers wide, where the DNA double helix is unzipped and the strands are read individually.

The company announced the device today at the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conference in Marco Island, Florida. Another company, Oxford Nanopore showed off a desktop sequencing device called Ion Torrent, that could sequence an entire human genome in just two hours.

Why make a thumb drive-size genome sequencer? The company's idea is that doctors could use it to quickly biopsy tissue samples for genetic mutations that indicate disease, or to identify pathogens like viruses. They have a larger version in the works that could decode larger genomes more efficiently. That could come in super handy if a virulent flu that could kill half of mankind started spreading. [MassGenomics via New Scientist via Dvice]

Image credit: Oxford Nanopore Technologies