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IBM, Roche to Make DNA Sequencing Cheap, Fast, and World-Changing


Tech giant IBM and pharmceutical powerhouse, Roche have announced a parntership to advance something truly remarkable: Nanopore DNA sequencing. It's no exaggeration to say that this technology could radically influence security, criminal processing, healthcare, even dating.

DNA decoding currently involves expensive, slow, painstaking use of breaking apart and labeling amino acids with marker chemcials, then applying complex sofware to solve the code. Nanopore DNA coding is markedly different: A nanopore is essentially a tiny hole that's about 1nm across. If you plop a nanopore in a conducting liquid, and apply a tiny electrical charge across the liquid, then an incredibly small electrical current can form in the nanopore as ions flow through it from one electrode to another. This current is very susceptible to the nanopore's size. Arrange it so that a strand of DNA is pulled through the nanopore, the pore current changes as the different amino acids slide by. Record this current's changes, and you can work out the sequence of G, T, A, C amino acids in order. In other words, the nanopore very simpy lets you decode the DNA sequence in a similar way to how a tape recorder plays back music from an audio tape.

There's much less fussing around with chemicals than older DNA methods, the equipment can be simpler, easier to run, faster, and thus cheaper. IBM and Roche will be developing IBM's silicon chip-based nanopore tech, to produce a system which "offers true single molecule sequencing" according to the press release. The goal is to reduce the cost of DNA sequencing a whole human genome to between $100 and $1,000.

What's the effect of all this on our lives? To start with it would change criminal forensics, and make it an even more exact science. It could revolutionize healthcare, allowing "personalized" treatments which is important as doctors are increasingly of the opinion that each individual can react in a unique way to diseases and medicines. It would facilitate the gene therapy cures for some of our worse genetic disorders.

gattacaMost interstingly, perhaps, it could also change the job of identifying individuals. The ultimate end-point for nanopore DNA reading is an almost instantaneous and incredibly cheap DNA code-reader. Those of you who've seen the film GATTACA will be thinking about how firms in this science-fictional world use tiny automated blood sampling to identify people entering a building, and you'll be remembering how fractured a society the ubiquitous DNA sampling skills resulted in. DNA descrimination isn't, yet, a problem in the 21st Century. But if DNA coding becomes super-cheap and fast, your dating options may suddenly narrow.

Image via University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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