Do you remember the Gattaca? In the 1990's SciFi thriller set in the not-too-distant future most people are geneticallyengineered prior to an in-vitro procedure ensuring the child will have the best possible start in life. The movie has done remarkably well in predicting actual future technologies. We already have SpaceX radically lowering the cost of space launches and Genepeeks offering pre-screening of sperm donors . Portable DNA sequencing technology is quickly becoming reality as well.
Back in 2015 gene sequencing startup Oxford Nanopore released the MinION, a USB sized portable DNA sequencer. Unlike traditional DNA sequencers like the ones produced by near monopolist Illumina the MinION sequences DNA via a method called nanopore sensing. The method works by passing DNA molecules through tiny pores only slightly bigger than the DNA itself. When a voltage is applied across the membrane, ions flow through the pore, creating an electric current. If a strand of DNA is blocking the pore the current drops. Since the four DNA bases affect the current in different ways, the DNA sequence can be deciphered by measuring the current. A detailed description can be found over at Oxford Nanopore. Besides providing competition to Illumina and ensuring the DNA sequencing costs continue to fall the MinION is so small that it easily fits in your pocket.
Picture: Oxford Nanopore
Currently the technology is still in its early stages with a significant error rate and prohibitive sequencing times. A couple of years down the road the applications will be limitless. The MinION has already seen prime time with extensive in field research of the Ebola virus development and currently with the Zika epidemic.
The ultimate validation of the technology and business model came earlier this year as market leader Illumina filed a lawsuit over patent infringement of two patents Illumina had previously exclusively licensed from the AB Research Foundation and the University of Washington. The lawsuit didn't have high prospects of success in the first place, since Illumina doesn't have any product based on the technology. Nevertheless Oxford Nanopore quickly announced that its next generation technology will be based on membrane protein produced by a bacteria not covered by Illumina's patents.