It used to be that Star Trek’s infamous Tricorder device only existed in the realm of science fiction, but a real-life working version is bringing Trekkie tech to the real world, and helping humanity detect, analyze and diagnose illness in a whole new way. MinION, as it’s called, is a fully portable handheld DNA sequencer that can not only detect the presence of an infection, but also estimate the severity of disease before the outbreak gets out of hand.
In the Star Trek universe, doctors used the medical Tricorder device to collect bodily information about their patients. Sometimes it was used to distinguish specific diseases or illnesses, or sometimes to diagnose new or alien health conditions. The name comes from the full name of the fictional device, the tri-function recorder, since it was used for three purposes: to sense, compute, and record patient data.
In real life, this medical device will be able to scan and analyze patient samples virtually anywhere. Doctors will be able to scan sick patients’ breath to identify bacteria causing curious illnesses. Health workers will be able to detect dangerous microbes spreading infections in hospitals. And beyond its health-specific applications, the MinION will also be useful in agricultural regulation, fresh produce, and food processing checks, and could even play an important role in protecting endangered animal species from diseases and the risks of illegal trafficking.
Inventors and researchers working on the MinION project are proponents of what has come to be known as “the democratization of sequencing”. DNA makes up the building blocks of life on Earth, but has largely been inaccessible to civilians and individuals outside research labs and the medical profession. The handheld MinION device is another step towards a world where anyone can gather information and process DNA samples for their own personal purposes. Nanopore technology allows an ionic current to pass through nano-scale holes in the device, measuring changes in the current to identify the biological components of molecules as they progress through the system.
Genetics is an intricate and influential field of science, but the study of DNA also leads to controversial conversations about how future applications of sequencing technology could be highly dangerous or even outright wrong. Assessing genetic suitability for certain tasks is an idea framed by popular culture in the 1997 film, Gattaca. In the movie, DNA from strands of hair was analyzed to determine the hierarchy of suitability for potential astronauts launching into space. As Gattaca fans will remember, DNA sequencing starts a slippery slope from real genetic science to social philosophy built on theories of eugenics.
The MinION device itself is 10 centimeters long and weighs 90 grams, and its portability is matched by its $1000 price tag. This is an affordable option for professionals and scientists, especially when compared to the high costs of other DNA sequencing technologies. MinION could be a game-changer in the medical and biotech fields, since the device could eliminate the costly/time-consuming need to ship DNA samples to research labs.
An improved turnaround time for DNA sequencing results could be the difference between life and death in situations where dangerous contagions are at play. Looking back on outbreaks of Ebola or even Avian flu in recent years, it’s clear to see that MinION could significantly stifle the spread of dangerous diseases in the remote locations where they often originate. In time, the MinION device could even become an important teaching tool, as DNA sequencing becomes more accessible for interested civilians. If the democratization of sequencing takes hold as a movement, MinION data could even be linked to smart phones so that illnesses could be diagnosed in real time wherever they occur..