Prototype genome-sequencing chips  (Source: Imperial College London)
Technology could be available as soon as 2020

Imperial College London researchers have developed and patented an early prototype technology that could sequence a human genome in a matter of minutes. 

All authors and researchers who contributed to the study are from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London, and include Dr. Joshua Edel, Dr. Emanuele Instuli, Aleksander Ivanov, and Dr. Tim Albrecht. Together, they believe they have created a DNA sequencing technology that is faster and cheaper than any previous procedure used for genome sequencing. 

Up until now, a human genome could only be sequenced through a difficult and time-consuming process that involves breaking the genome into pieces. Using nanopores, which are small holes in an electrically insulating membrane, has been idealized as the next big advance in DNA technology that could speed up the process of sequencing, but there were no available nanopore designs that were feasible or demonstrated until now.

"Compared with current technology, this device could lead to much cheaper sequencing," said Edel. "Just a few dollars, compared with $1 million to sequence an entire genome in 2007. We haven't tried it on a whole genome yet, but our initial experiments suggest that you could theoretically do a complete scan of the 3,165 million bases in the human genome within minutes, providing huge benefits for medical tests, or DNA profiles for police and security work. It should be significantly faster and more reliable, and would be easy to scale up to create a device with the capacity to read up to 10 million bases per second, versus the typical 10 bases per second you get with the present day single molecule real-time techniques."

Edel and his colleagues believe that scientists could eventually utilize a single lab procedure to sequence an entire genome using this new technology. To do this, the Imperial College London researchers propelled a DNA strand at very high speeds through a nanopore, which was a 50 nanometre hole, using an electrical charge. The nanopore was cut into a silicon chip, and as the DNA strand passes through the back of the chip, a "tunneling electrode junction" reads its coding sequence (bases A, C, T or G). The tunneling electrode junction is a 2 nanometre gap located between two wires that uses an electrical current to "interact" with electrical signals from the individual base codes. From there, a computer distinguishes the different signals from the different base codes to build the genome sequence.

"Getting the DNA strand through the nanopore is a bit like sucking up spaghetti," said Instuli. "Until now it has been difficult to precisely align the junction and the nanopore. Furthermore, engineering the electrode wires with such dimensions approaches the atomic scale and is effectively at the limit of existing instrumentation. However, in this experiment we were able to make two tiny platinum wires into an electrode junction with a gap sufficiently small to allow electron current to flow between them."

Tunneling electrode junction technology could potentially allow everyday people to utilize the device, which could reveal DNA-related secrets such as susceptibility to cancer or Alzheimer's disease. As stated before, this type of research could be beneficial to those in police and security-related professions as well. But researchers note that this will not be available for at least another 10 years. 

According to Albrecht, the next move is to differentiate between unique DNA samples and eventually between individual bases within a DNA strand. 

This study was published in Nano Letters.

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