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Marziali's Tech For DNA Purification Tackles The Worst of Contamination

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It's not every day you see biologists get really excited about — of all things — sample prep. But if Andre Marziali has any say in it, you can expect that kind of enthusiasm to become downright commonplace.

Marziali is the brain behind SCODA, a nucleic acid separation technology that relies on special electrical fields to purify DNA or RNA out of even highly contaminated samples. The technology has just been exclusively licensed from Marziali's research home at the University of British Columbia to his startup, Boreal Genomics, for commercialization.

By the start of this year, Marziali already had prototype instruments out in the field, where researchers were getting acquainted with the gel-based method that uses focusing electrical fields, which nucleic acids respond to but contaminants don't. The fields concentrate the DNA or RNA into a compact unit at the center of the gel, while all other molecules are spun out to the periphery of the gel. In a metagenomics project with Rob Holt, Marziali describes taking a soil sample that no one else had been able to extract DNA from. Using the SCODA technology, Marziali's team was able to deliver a purified microgram of DNA — enough to get the project going.

Currently, Marziali is working on a second-generation prototype, which would speed up the purification process from a few hours to as little as five minutes. Boreal is hoping to get a beta version of that instrument out to customers by early next year. The cost will be comparable to similar electophoretic products, Marziali says: "In the future we imagine an instrument priced below $10,000."

The tool, and the concept behind it, has proven so popular that Marziali finds himself in the unusual situation of having to "turn investors away." Tom Willis, who chairs Boreal's board of directors, helped Marziali get the company off the ground and work out a business model relying on as little venture capital as possible.

The technology, which can take any number of sample types from soil to blood to milk, is broadly applicable in forensics, agriculture, genomics, and throughout the life sciences.

Marziali says he stumbled across the idea for SCODA quite by accident. "When we first started applying this to DNA," he says, "we didn't know how selective it was going to be. It's just played out beautifully."

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