The DNA-sequencing race heated up Friday as privately-held Oxford Nanopore Technologies Ltd said it developed two new devices that could quickly surpass existing gene decoders and rivals set for release later this year.

The new sequencers will compete against devices from Illumina Inc and Ion Torrent, a unit of Life Technologies Corp


Illumina is the target of a $5.7 billion hostile takeover bid from Roche Holding AG , which wants that company's sequencing capabilities. There is growing demand for ways to determine which medicines are best suited to particular patients, known as personalized medicine.

The building bricks of life

The building bricks of life – Image source

Oxford Nanopore's MinION device is housed in what looks like a USB stick and will sell for about $900. The underlying technology is

unique for using an array of 512 nanopores – holes with diameters of a few nanometers, or 50,000 times smaller than a human hair and about the same size as a DNA molecule – in a cell membrane. As DNA strands are pulled through the nanopores, they change the electric current flowing across the membrane. Each such change indicates which DNA base has just passed through the pore.

MinION will be capable of sequencing 150,000 DNA bases per hour. The human genome has 3 billion bases. MinION “will be competitive with current desktop instruments the size of small photocopiers,” the company said in a statement on Friday. Oxford unveiled the devices at the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology meeting in Marco Island, Fla. The second device, GridION, consists of an array of sequencers, each containing 2,000 nanopores.

That is expected to increase to 8,000 nanopores in the next-generation device. Twenty of these, running simultaneously, could sequence a full human genome in 15 minutes, the company said, describing both devices as “plug-and-play.”

Ion Torrent released details of its Ion Proton Sequencer in January, saying the new machine will be able to sequence a complete human genome in a few hours for $1,000 and sell for at least $99,000. Illumina's HiSeq 2500, also announced in January and available later this year, will sequence a human genome in about a day; no price has been announced.

Illumina shares closed 3.9 percent lower on Friday and Life Technologies' shares fell 7.8 percent.

One likely barrier to widespread adoption of the new Nanopore sequencers is their error rate of 4 percent, which is higher than that of most rivals. “We know what the problem is and we can fix it,” Nanopore's Dan Turner told Nick Loman, who blogs at Pathogens: Genes and Genomes. The Nanopore devices promise to beat existing sequencers in the length of the DNA strand they are able to read: tens of thousands of bases compared with a few hundred in most existing sequencers.

This “read length” is important because it reduces the number of strands that have to be assembled into the precise order in which they exist on a genome, making data analysis easier.

“GridION and MinION are poised to deliver a completely new range of benefits to researchers and clinicians,” Dr. Gordon Sanghera, CEO of Oxford Nanopore, said in a statement.


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