We were first introduced to Oxford Nanopore Technologies and their MinION DNA sequencer when their CTO Clive Brown ‘did a Steve Jobs’ and literally pulled the impressive piece of kit out of his pocket at the Hello Tomorrow Summit last October. And that's the beauty of what Oxford Nanopore Technologies have done - they've literally created a pocket-sized DNA sequencer, meaning biological analysis can be done on the go, at a low cost, in real time, by anyone.
The portability of the MinION means DNA sequencing can be done anywhere – the most ‘extreme’ example use being the testing of the MinION on board the International Space Station by NASA astronaut Kate Rubins.
Oxford Nanopore have gathered an enthusiastic community of their users and they are active in encouraging discussion amongst them. They are also developing an automated sample preparation device for easier use outside the lab. It's safe to say that the company is taking a disruptive approach to product development, including their users wherever possible.
We spoke to Simon Hazelwood of Science Practice – a design and research company which works with scientists to put research into practice. Simon has been trialling the MinION to see if it really is possible for any company or anyone to start sequencing DNA.
The team are conducting their own independent research, mainly through the London BioHackspace. "The experiment we are running is sequencing DNA extracted from soil samples - we’re curious to try to find out if it’s possible to monitor the health of soil through identifying the bacterial and fungal species living there." For the Science Practice team, MinION sequencing is particularly interesting for this application. Due to the fact that there is no need to culture bacteria from soil, DNA can be extracted directly from the samples they collect. Simon says: "This has the potential to remove biases from testing, as well as speeding up the process.”
Simon also spoke about the simplicity of the cloud-based analytics platform – Metrichor – such as a programme within the online tool called ‘What’s in my pot’, which matches sequences in your samples to corresponding unique sequences in other sample species.
It seems MinION still requires a small amount of lab equipment, with Science Practice making the most of not only the BioHackspace for pipettes and a centrifuge, but also the QMUL genome centre.
“Our motivations for trialling the MinION were to see if we could get to a proof of concept that this type of sequencing might be a better way of monitoring soil health, and also to see if it was yet possible for a company like us to run sequencing experiments."
While the data is analysed to conclude whether this is indeed a better soil monitoring solution, Simon and team are already in agreement that the MinION has created a way for companies like theirs to experiment with sequencing DNA. "Most excitingly for us, it has the potential to allow people who aren’t trained as scientists to run their own experiments."
That's certainly worth being excited about.