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Sequencing: With Help of Startup, NASA Jumps at the $1,000 Genome

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At NASA Ames Genome Research Facility in Moffett Field, Calif., Viktor Stolc and his group of researchers have spent several years developing a new method for fabricating silicon substrates — with the ultimate goal of using the material as a high-throughput DNA sequencer. Now that goal is closer to becoming reality. Last year a San Francisco-based startup called Nanophotonics Biosciences discovered Stolc’s work through his group’s website [http://phenomorph.arc.nasa.gov] and began working with NASA to build a commercially viable version of the nanopore sequencing technology.

Stolc’s unpublished work involves combining modeling and experiments to design nanoporous silicon-based materials that can detect various nucleic acids on the basis of changes in the physical properties of the nanopore. Other groups, including Agilent Laboratories and the Harvard University researchers Daniel Branton and David Deamer, are pursuing related approaches, but Stolc says his group has managed to distinguish between individual nucleic acid monomers — though he’s still working on detecting single molecules when strung together in a polymer. By contrast, Agilent, in collaboration with Branton and Deamer, has developed a nanopore detector that can distinguish between strings of nucleic acids, but has yet to achieve single-nucleotide resolution.

Scientists at Nanophotonics Biosciences are now working in Stolc’s lab to hone the technology, where they have access to NASA’s clean room and instrumentation for nanofabricating materials. At their current level of funding, drawn from a combination of NASA and DARPA sources, Stolc says their approach could produce a viable method for sequencing individual genomes for $1,000 within five to 10 years; with additional investment he thinks his team could reach that goal within two years. He says his group has already attracted interest from several high-profile venture capital firms. “For my comfort level,” he says, “we want to get to a stage where we can hand off the research to make a product. We’re hoping that Nanophotonics will be the company to do it.”

—John S. MacNeil

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