How a DNA machine uses electronics to speed up testing

Ion Torrent's DNA machine uses chemistry and semiconductor technology to deliver faster results.

Recently, I visited the headquarters of Ion Torrent and spoke with Maneesh Jain, a vice president at the company. Inside the sterile office, the sound of the DNA machines hummed ever so slightly - like a computer room's insistent hissing sound.

The Ion Personal Genome Machine uses chemistry and semiconductor technology to produce readouts of genetic information in a couple of hours. It's about the size of a desktop computer.

The machine is unlike any of the machines I've seen in traditional labs. Ion Torrent designed their machine to read sequences based on chemicals and electronic technology. The DNA sequencing machines require light to decode samples of DNA.

Using the DNA machine, scientists start with a DNA sample from tissue or blood. Then researchers amplify it and load it onto a chip. That's when the chip is inserted into the instrument so that an electrical connection is made. When the lever is pulled down to induce a fluidic connection, DNA sequencing occurs in real-time.

Researchers can get results quickly and publish faster, Jain said. Clinicians can get results to patients much faster. The results are delivered via an iTouch.

However, the machine can't do a full genome sequence. But that's not the point of it. It's a research tool. It will enable researchers to sequence cancer samples or microbes. It will give researchers access to do more DNA-based research, a a cheaper price.

Desktop-sized DNA sequencing machines could change the way genetic research is done. Instead of researchers buying really expensive equipment or paying a lot to ship samples away and wait for results to come back, researchers can do the investigations right there in the lab. That way, researchers can put in a sample, step out for coffee, check email and come back to collect the results.

Previously, Matthew Herper at Forbes wrote a story about the machine's inventor, Jonathan Rothberg.

Rothberg told Herper: "This is biology's century--just [as] physics was the foundation of the last century." Citing the $100 billion medical imaging industry, he boasts, "I believe sequencing will be that big."

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