In a remote rainforest in the mountains of Tanzania, a group of Italian scientists caught a tiny frog. They already suspected that it might be a new species, and wanted to settle it once and for all. But instead of catching it and comparing it to books and identification guides like you might normally, they took a small sample of its blood.
This is all they needed to be able sequence small sections of the little amphibian's DNA, astonishingly without even leaving the forest. They were then able to send the information via the cloud all the way back to a lab in Italy. Here, another group of researchers ran the DNA through a gene bank, and the results were pretty incredible.
It seems their original suspicion might have been correct all along; the little frog could well be new to science. More research will have to be done to verify if it is indeed a new species, but first the team of scientists will have to find it again since the procedure is so noninvasive they let the little fella go. This is a marked difference from the collecting days of old, when hundreds of specimens were often killed in the name of science.
The lab where they sequenced the DNA in the rainforest. mongabay.com/MUSE
This incredible achievement was made possible through the use of a clever new piece of battery-powered equipment called the Expedition Genomics Lab, developed by MUSE Science Museum, BiodivERsA, and the University of Verona. It allows researchers for the first time ever to be able to extract, purify, amplify and finally sequence DNA, all without ever leaving the field.
They did this using another awesome new gadget: a portable DNA sequencing machine. Called a MinION, and developed by U.K.-based Oxford Nanopore Technologies, the palm-sized gene sequencer can connect to a computer via a USB port and provide the user with real-time readings of relatively long stretches of DNA. This powerful tool could be invaluable to researchers from a huge range of disciplines.
“This is democratization of sequencing,” Joshua Quick, who used the MinION to test patients for Ebola in Guinea earlier this year, told Nature. “You don’t have to rely on expensive infrastructure and costly equipment.” At the relatively cheap price of $1,000 apiece, the inventors hope that this device will be able to revolutionize biology in developing countries, where the lack of equipment to conduct DNA analysis is a major problem for scientific research.
But the tech hasn’t been without its problems, or critics. Early generations of the MinION took a long time to sequence, all whilst making a lot of errors. This newer version appears to have ironed out some of these issues to such an extent that it can now reliably sequence short sections of DNA, including the genomes of bacteria, read complex sections of human DNA, and even distinguish between two versions of a gene. Some reports, however, suggest that it still has an error rate in the range of 5-30%.
These issues haven’t stopped huge interest mounting from all directions though, including from epidemiology to helping custom control teams test for endangered species. Even NASA apparently wants in, planning to send one up to the International Space Station to give it a whirl in zero gravity with an eventual plan to ship one off to Mars and test for life.