DNA Sequencing Is Getting Cheaper and Easier

DNA sequencing is getting cheaper and easier, fast.

Joseph Cox

Joseph Cox

Image: Shutterstock/Mopic

Researchers in New Zealand have developed a portable, battery-powered device that can identify DNA sequences in the field. According to the University of Otago website, their 'Freedom4' sequencer can be used to detect suspected viruses or bacteria on the go, as opposed to having to send data off to a lab to be analysed.

The device, which is about the size of a small stack of books and can fit in your hand, works in real-time using technology called quantitative PCR, which the researchers said means a result can be processed in less than an hour.

It can be plugged into a laptop or tethered wirelessly to a smartphone to analyse samples, and with a six-hour battery life it's being marketed as an "anytime, anywhere" piece of equipment.

"This mobility could provide a great boon for farmers. For instance, vets could drive around a farm analysing samples from various locations, make their diagnoses and treat infected animals—all in one trip," Dr Jo-Ann Stanton, who led the research with Otago's Department of Anatomy, said in the announcement.

The potential health applications were emphasised in the trial process. The New Zealand Institute of Environmental and Scientific Research tested it with E.coli and some gastrointestinal and respiratory viruses and the researchers claim that it can rival the larger, lab-based DNA analysis systems that we're used to.

Indeed, the real marvel is how quickly DNA sequencing has evolved from needing billions of dollars and a full-scale lab to a fraction of the cost and a handheld device.

Craig Venter published research on the first sequenced human genome back in 2001. Shortly after, in 2003, the US government-funded Human Genome Project was completed, at an estimated cost of $2.7 billion. The project developed technology for analysing DNA, and for mapping and sequencing the genome of homo sapiens and other animals.

There are two main costs when it comes to DNA sequencing, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). The first is "Cost per Megabase of DNA Sequence;" this is the amount of money it costs to produce one 'megabase,' a unit used to measure genome size that refers to one million base pairs of DNA. (The human genome has around 3,000 megabases, or 3 billion base pairs.)

The second, is the "Cost per Genome", which, naturally, is the cost of sequencing a human-sized genome.

You'll notice there's a sharp decline in the price of sequencing both a megabase and a human-sized genome in January 2008. This marks the advent of "second generation" sequencing technologies, which the NHGRI explains have dramatically cheaper running costs than their predecessors.

But although costs plummeted, sequencing DNA still required access to a laboratory and some very bulky equipment. Just this January, genetics company Illumina revealed the HiSeq X, a supercomputer that can sequence an entire human genome for as little as $1,000. Teams from sequencing company Macrogen, MIT and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research all purchased their own HiSeq Xs. Some of the gear included in the computers costs millions of dollars, however, so it's hardly something that every research team can just pick up.

This brings us up to the Freedom4. Granted, it can't do a full human genome; it can only "identify target DNA sequences" to detect things like viruses and bacteria. But at $25,000 and about the size of a shoebox, it's impressive, and likely a sign of the way DNA analysing tech in general is heading.

Otago University is trying to make the product commercially available, and is offering a series of grant programmes in partnership with a company called Ubiquitome to get the device out into the wild. 

Image of Freedom4's development team, inset: Sharron Bennett