DNA sequencing technology isn't exactly accessible; a typical sequencing machine can easily cost $500,000. A startup called Ion Torrent aims to change that with a desktop sequencing machine for just $50,000—cheap enough for well-funded research projects to afford.
The key to Ion Torrent's Personal Genome Machine is a semiconductor chip that holds 1.5 million sensors, each of which can hold a single strand DNA fragment. The chip electronically detects the DNA sequence, unlike other sequencing machines that optically detect DNA with pricey lasers, microscopes, and cameras. It can sequence a DNA sample in a few hours, while other machines can take at least a week. And it can scale up fast. The company explains:
Because Ion Torrent produces its proprietary semiconductor chips in standard CMOS factories, we leverage the $1 trillion dollar investment that has been made in the semiconductor industry over the past 40 years. This industry's huge manufacturing infrastructure enables Ion Torrent to meet any demand for our chips.
There are some caveats. Each $250 chip can only be used once. The chip also reads a small amount of DNA; 10 to 20 million bases per run, out of the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome. But that's enough for genetic diagnostic tests, according to Technology Review.
Ion Torrent's machine goes on sale this month. Soon enough, these semiconductor sequencing chips may start popping up in cash-endowed hospitals around the world. Could consumer DNA sequencing machines be far behind?