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Life Tech Launches Wildfire to Expand Capacity of 5500, Positions System for Exome, RNA Sequencing

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Life Technologies last week launched its Wildfire sample prep technology for the 5500, which eliminates emulsion PCR, reduces sample prep time and cost, and increases exome and transcriptome sequencing throughput two- to five-fold per lane.

The upgrade is available to 5500 customers for $70,000, which includes a new graphics processing unit and a scientific CMOS camera.

Mark Gardner, Life Tech's vice president and general manager of advanced genomic systems, said that the Wildfire upgrade makes sense for existing 5500 customers looking to add capacity to their existing machines.

"This is a scalable upgrade and enables current customers to stay competitive with where the market is at a fraction of the cost of buying a new instrument," he told In Sequence. "Existing customers can feel comfortable that for the next two to three years they will maintain market competitive economics."

Gardner anticipates that the majority of Life Tech's 5500 customer base will purchase the upgrade, while brand new customers will likely lean toward the Ion Torrent Proton machine, which will be Life Tech's "flagship product" when it is launched in the third quarter this year.

Life Tech announced the Wildfire technology at last year's combined International Congress of Human Genetics/American Society of Human Genetics in Montreal (IS 10/18/2011).

As the company said then, the Wildfire technology eliminates emulsion PCR from the workflow, replacing it with isothermal amplification. Sample prep is done directly on the flow cell. The DNA is essentially coated onto both sides of the flow cell, and is then isothermally amplified.

The upgrade cuts nearly a day off sample prep time and reduces the cost of sequencing by about 50 percent. Using Wildfire, the amplification step will take 30 minutes and the total sample prep from library construction until sequencing starts will take two hours. Sample prep for the 5500 using LifeTech's EZ Bead system currently takes around eight hours with one hour of hands-on time.

The upgrade reduces cost in two ways. First, the isothermal amplification process is much less expensive than emulsion PCR. Amplification for one lane of sequencing costs around $200 with the Wildfire technology and more than $400 with emulsion PCR, said Gardner.

The Wildfire technology also allows for an increase in the density of DNA "features" — independent DNA colonies — to one million per square millimeter on each flow cell from 400,000 per square millimeter. Using Life Tech's EZ Bead system, the density could not be increased because the beads are negatively charged and repel each other, explained Gardner.

Because of the density increase, a scientific CMOS camera is needed, which is included in the $70,000 upgrade price.

With the upgrade, four exomes can be run on a single lane with 50-base single end reads in a few days for a little under $1,000, including the sample prep and amplification process. Using six lanes, 24 exomes can be generated in seven days for about $4,700. Using the 5500 without the Wildfire technology, 24 exomes take 12 days of sequencing and cost around $9,400, said Gardner.

By comparison, the Ion Proton is expected to deliver two human exomes within a few hours for $500 each, using the Proton 1 chip.

Gardner noted, however, that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison and that the Wildfire technology is primarily aimed at existing 5500 customers.

Life Tech has previously said that it would focus its future sequencing efforts on its Ion Torrent products. Gardner said that this is still the case, but that Life Tech also will not abandon its existing 5500 customers. "We don't want to leave any of our customers behind," he said.

Gardner does not anticipate that researchers entering the sequencing market for the first time will purchase the 5500 with Wildfire technology. Most new 5500 orders are from customers that already have the instrument and are looking to expand capacity, he added. For a brand new customer, Gardner said he would recommend the Proton because of its "speed, scalability, and simplicity."

Life Tech is also not positioning the 5500 to compete with Illumina's HiSeq instrument. The 5500's "sweet spot" is in exome sequencing and RNA sequencing as opposed to whole human genome sequencing, Gardner said.

While the 5500 has a longer turnaround time compared to the Illumina HiSeq for whole human genome sequencing, its "pay per lane" feature makes it attractive for researchers doing exome sequencing or RNA sequencing that may not have enough samples to fill an entire machine. There's not a price penalty for running just one lane, said Gardner.

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