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Scientists Help Fill in Human Genome Gaps With USB Sequencer

first_imgLet us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey. Back in the mid-to-late 90s, the Human Genome Project became an impressive, global undertaking. Scientists all over the planet were sharing resources and committing to something once thought impossible — not just sequencing human DNA, but gathering enough different samples from around the world to understand the deep, rich history of species, painted on our genes. And now we can do that same work on a USB stick. Kinda.Just this week, a paper in the journal Nature detailed a new device called MinION that sequence one hundred billion base pairs with relative ease. It costs only about a grand (pretty cheap for high-end biomedical gear) and connects to a standard laptop. This makes DNA reading simple and easy, for today’s modern researcher-on-the-go. MinION can read off sets of DNA in chunks of up to 882,000 base pairs — far larger than the typical few dozen or hundred. “There’s a lot of things that are exciting about this,” study author Matthew Loose from the University of Nottingham told Gizmodo. “We can sequence much larger chunks of DNA than we’ve ever seen before.”The system works by breaking down bits of DNA and strands through nanopores in a material using electrical currents. When the DNA crosses these currents, the computer can read those small changes as a different base pair.The only main downside is that the error rate is unusually high, but that can be mitigated somewhat by subsequent reads. Still, thousands of times the speed is a pretty good trade-off for small bumps in accuracy. And, so far, the researchers on the project aren’t quite sure if the mistakes are the device flubbing up or if it’s actually altering the DNA it reads with the electrical charges.It won’t be long, either, for the company’s next device SmidgION to sequence genes directly on your phone. Potentially useful for researchers working in the field who want to collect and analyze samples on-the-spot. Plus, as Ars Technica notes, there are advantages to different types of genome reading. Short, highly accurate reads can help give you the sequence of individual sections, but longer, less accurate reads can be used to piece together the overall structure. That makes sense, too, as when you’re working with millions or billions of bits of data and reconstructing it from the ground up, you’ll want both a broad overview and a more precise read to get the specifics.So useful, in fact, were MinION’s longer reads that the team behind them were able to fill in some gaps for the original human genome project. But, as another fun quirk, the project did lead researchers to find that the file format we usually store DNA information in wasn’t robust enough to handle so many consecutive and contiguous section, requiring specialized algorithms and some serious silicon-powered number crunching to make it work. As the work on this expands and improves, though, expect to see continued and rapid advancement in the realm of genomics. With the rise of computational power and now the technology for sequencing itself shrinking down to much more manageable sizes, scientists and researchers the world over will have a lot more flexibility. And that’s only good news for the knowledge-hungry among us.last_img

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