Portable, handheld DNA sequencer no bigger than a brick

Researchers at the University of Otago, New Zealand have invented a brick-sized, battery-powered DNA sequencer for field use.

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Michelle Starr
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University of Otago

DNA sequencing is amazingly complicated (although a lot quicker than it used to be) and requires a lot of computing power, but is extremely useful for diagnosing hereditary genetic diseases, among other applications. Because it is so complex, though, it usually requires highly specialised equipment that can only be found in a laboratory.

A team of researchers at New Zealand's University of Otago may be about to make it a fair bit more accessible, with the invention of a portable DNA sequencer no heavier than a laptop. Called the Freedom4, it uses quantitative PCR -- a technique for amplifying and quantifying DNA molecules -- to target DNA sequences in real-time, without requiring further processing.

With a six-hour battery life and the ability to be tethered to a laptop or wirelessly to a mobile phone running custom software that analyses the test results, the Freedom4 could be used for a variety of applications, the team said. As well as clinical diagnosis of viral infectious diseases in humans, it has potential applications on forensics and environmental monitoring, too.

"This mobility could provide a great boon for farmers," said project leader Dr Jo-Ann Stanton. "For instance, vets could drive around a farm analysing samples from various locations, make their diagnoses and treat infected animals -- all in one trip."

The machine has been extensively independently tested by the New Zealand Institute of Environmental and Scientific Research, which ran a variety of viruses through it, including E.coli and several gastrointestinal and respiratory viruses, including H1N1 (swine flu). The Institute found that the Freedom4 performed on a par with much larger systems housed in labs.

"We are immensely proud that we have created this brilliant device; there is currently no other system in the world that compares in terms of the analytical power we have achieved at this level of mobility and ease of use," Dr Stanton said.

The university's Otago Innovation is now working in partnership with genome company Ubiquitome to produce the device on a commercial level. Expressions of interest and pricing enquiries can be directed through the Ubiquitome website.