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Handheld DNA sequencer could soon allow individual consumers to detect GMOs in food

DNA sequencer

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(NaturalNews) In the original Star Trek series, Dr. "Bones" McCoy used a handheld device called a tricorder which could, among other things, instantly diagnose a patient's health status by reading his or her DNA.

The original series was set in the 23rd century, but here in the 21st century, a similar device has already been developed and it's being hailed as a revolutionary step towards "the democratization of sequencing."

The device, called MinION, is not only small and portable – about the size of an older-model mobile phone – it's also inexpensive. The MinION sells for around $1,000 and its potential uses are almost limitless.

The handheld device is in its early stages of development, but it is already being put to good use by scientists in the field. For example, MinION has been used in Guinea to read the genomes of Ebola samples and will be put to use by astronauts on the International Space Station in the coming months to read DNA samples in space for the first time.

Enormous potential, myriad uses

Although there were performance glitches in the prototype, the latest version of MinION appears to work very well. It's not as powerful or accurate as some of the larger stationary DNA analysis machines, and it can't read something as complex as complete human DNA strands, but it is able to perform a number of very useful functions.

From The Guardian.com:

The device is not designed to read very long genomes, such as the 3bn letters that make up the instruction book for human life, nor read them with the accuracy of one of the small car-sized machines found in major genetics labs. But it can quickly identify bacteria and viruses from their DNA, tell one strain from another, and spot different gene variants in sections of human genetic code.

For the time being, MinION is mainly being used by research scientists. The samples still require preparation in a lab before they can be tested, but consumer versions of the device are expected to be on the market soon.

Some of the potential uses for consumers include the ability to analyze food. It will theoretically be possible to read the DNA of an apple or any other fruit or vegetable to find out whether it has been genetically modified.

A device of this type could also be used to evaluate potential mates for genetic compatibility; this capability will likely prove to be controversial, among many other potential uses that will undoubtedly raise ethical questions.

Whether or not consumer versions will soon appear along with a demand for such technology by the average person remains to be seen. However, there are many commercial, scientific and medical applications that are well within reach of the technology as it currently exists:

GPs could analyse patients' breath to identify bacteria that are making them ill. Health workers could use them to hunt for reservoirs of drug-resistant microbes in hospitals. Animal hairs and skin could be analysed to catch poachers and traffickers of endangered animals. Inspectors at fish markets could verify what fish is being sold. In the water-cooling towers of office buildings, you could install a device to scan for the bacteria that causes Legionnaire's disease.

The ability to cheaply analyze DNA samples on the spot is certainly a useful, and indeed revolutionary, development. There is little doubt that MinION and devices like it will be in widespread use within a short period of time, especially as the technology becomes more advanced and even less expensive.

It is always interesting to see science fiction turn into science fact, as it often does. Dr. McCoy would wholeheartedly approve of this exciting new development, one that has appeared a couple of centuries earlier than predicted by his creators.


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