IBM’s “DNA Transistor” Could Sequence Genomes on the Cheap

By Eliza Strickland | October 6, 2009 9:23 pm

IBM-DNAWhen the Human Genome Project finished sequencing the first human genome earlier this decade, the price tag for the endeavor had reached almost $3 billion. Now, IBM has announced details of its effort to bring the cost of sequencing a person’s genome down to below $1,000–and the company says it could go as low as $100. While IBM is hardly the only company racing towards these goals, the company’s chip-based approach makes it a serious contender.

The company’s technique involves drilling tiny nanometer-size holes through computer-like silicon chips, then passing DNA strands through them to read the information contained in their genetic code. “We are merging computational biology and nanotechnology skills to produce something that will be very useful to the future of medicine” [Wired.com], says IBM scientist Gustavo Stolovitzky.

Stolovitzky says the work could usher in a new era of personalized medicine, in which patients routinely have their genomes scanned to help doctors make medical decisions. “Ultimately, it could improve the quality of medical care by identifying patients who will gain the greatest benefit from a particular medicine and those who are most at risk of adverse reaction,” said Stolovitzky [InformationWeek].

IBM calls the experimental silicon chip a “DNA transistor.” Because DNA naturally carries a net electric charge, simply applying a voltage across the two sides of the chip drives the DNA strands through the holes [BBC News]. The process could be fast and efficient, with hundreds or thousands of DNA strands passing through the holes, also called nanopores, on a single chip. Other companies are experimenting with nanopore DNA sequencing techniques, but the stumbling block has been getting the DNA strands to move through the holes at a controlled pace, to allow enough time to identify the individual nucleotides (the letters of the genetic code) as they pass through.

The IBM team thinks that by cyclically turning on and off the voltage around the nanopore, the DNA strand could be coaxed through at a steady rate. However, the researchers haven’t tested this technique yet, and they expect that it will take about three years to get a working prototype. They also need to determine exactly how the DNA will be decoded when it passes through the nanopore. It’s an area of “intense research” within and outside of IBM, says Stolovitzky. One way to do it would be to measure the electrical properties of the different DNA bases such as capacitance and conductivity [Wired.com].

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Image: I.B.M.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Technology
MORE ABOUT: computers, genetics, IBM
  • Jonathan

    We just took a big step toward the GATTACA future. With a (theoretical) price point of less than $100, it doesn’t seem too improbable that the process will just become another part of the birthing ritual.

    “It’s a boy! He has 91% chance of…”

    Out of curiosity, who feels it is unethical/immoral to divulge such information to parents of a newborn? Should doctor/patient confidentiality be maintained?

  • Em

    I think it is unethical and immoral to provide that information to the parents. I could see it turning into the Gattaca scenerio; parents learn thier childs imperfections and some (probably many) of those parents will “give up” on those children and never tell them to go for their dreams because they believe they cannot achieve them. Of course there are going to be many people who say that wouldn’t happen, that parents love their children regardless of their imperfections, but I don’t have that faith in humanity. If that were true people wouldn’t have abortions because their unborn baby isn’t the sex they want and you wouldn’t hear stories on the news of parents killing thier children because they’re autistic.

    I’m sure someone is going to hate me for this post.

    But, yes, doctor/patient confidentiality should be maintained, even if the patient is a newborn.

  • Anthony

    Will everythig be a pre-existing condition now? “You were born with XX% chance of being diabetic, so its pre-existsing and we won’t cover it.” This is my true scary future of such information. As individuals I have faith in humanity. Our corporate culture, business as usually, bottom line over humanity, I have no faith in, and this information will be abused. Let’s have some thoughtful legislation on this before the genie is out of the bottle. Lets not let insurance companies discriminate on grounds of genes.

  • The Future

    In reply to Em, if you do not have faith in humanity, you are missing out. People do strange things sometimes, and to project the dark side of humanity on to everyone is unfair. Sure I understand your point not all parents love their children equally, but I have seen many give up so much for their children even knowing about mental and physical conditions at a young age.

    If you support doctor/patient confidentiality of those who can not even speak, do you also support the removal of other age restrictions? There is a reason children have legal guardians.

    To be clear, I do not hate you, and do not disagree with you entirely; however, I ask that you be careful in assuming the actions of a few represent the actions that will be taken by everyone.

  • Em

    I’m not assuming everyone will do as I said, however I don’t want the scenerio I stated should happen to anyone. Children and animals are the creatures that I care about. I will admit that I am jaded from my own experience with people. It’s my opinion that the majority of people in this world… well, suck. Many people do not rise to what they could be, they insist on being lesser creatures devoid of virtues and only provide “immoral support”. I don’t want those people to have any other way to discriminate against the young who cannot yet defend themselves. That is why I support doctor/patient confidentiality in this case. I would hate to see that information abused in any way. So, no, I don’t support the removal of other age restrictions- I agree that they are there for a reason. But, hell, even if someone said that your newborn would have a 90% chance of having ADHD and you medicate them from the start then… even though that may be because of a parent’s love for their child and desire to ease their struggles, what if that child beats the odds and doesn’t have ADHD? Then unfortunately they are merely addicted to stimulants and THEN have symptoms of the dissorder. I know my veiws wouldn’t happen all the time, and they may only happen even a small fraction of the time. 1 out of 100 occurances of my instances is still to many children affected by it. That’s all.

  • Timtom

    Like anything that can be used to collect information about people it will be abused. No question there.

    It will be abused even against the law. Even by governments. *Especially* by governments. And after a while people won’t even care. Just think about the thousands of cameras all over London. A breach of privacy but hey, this is for your own good. Yeah, right…

    So, should we stop it from happening? Maybe, but the real question is if it’s possible to stop it from happening. And I don’t think so it is.

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