Advance in Nanopore Gene Sequencing

Magnets help in the quest for the $1000 genome

3 min read

Your DNA sequence could be the ultimate addition to your medical records, revealing disease risks and offering the possibility of tailored treatments. But first, researchers need to make the sequencing of your entire genome affordable. The National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., are pushing researchers to come up with technology that would sequence a person’s entire genome for just US $1000. One of the front-runners in that race is called nanopore sequencing, and physicists at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., recently took a big step toward getting nanopore sequencing down to the $1000 mark.

Genetic information is encoded on DNA as the sequence in which four chemicals, called bases, are strung together. Using today’s techniques, sequencing someone’s genome can take days and cost about $100 000. Nanopore sequencing promises to speed up and simplify reading the 3 billion bases. The idea is to use an electric field to pull a DNA strand through a nanometer-scale pore. The pore is in a silicon nitride film immersed in a salt solution. A voltage drives current, in the form of ions in the water, through the nanopore, sucking the DNA through it like a child eating a noodle. As each base passes through the pore, it blocks the current to a degree specific to each of the four types of bases. The hope is to read the minute changes in current and thereby identify the sequence of bases.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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