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Early MinIon Mania

In spite of some stumbles and limitations on the technology, early users are gaga over Oxford Nanopore Technologies' MinIon sequencer, Nature News reports.

"This is democratization of sequencing," Joshua Quick, a bioinformatician at the UK's University of Birmingham, told the publication. "You don't have to rely on expensive infrastructure and costly equipment." 

One source of enthusiasm over the instrument is its seriously small size. On a trip to Guinea to do research on Ebola virus genomes, he was able to fit three MinIons in his luggage. 

Also, Nature News says that the instrument is cheap — although Oxford has not publicly said its actual price — and it can read out relatively long stretches of genetic sequence, while it's nifty enough to plug into a USB port so that a researcher can view the data on a laptop as its being generated, instead of a the end of the run, which can be days long. 

For now, the MinIon is available as part of an early access program. Participants in the program were provided the machine and flow cells for a deposit of $1,000. Next week, users will share their experiences with the instrument at meetings in London. 

Not all has gone smoothly for Oxford Nanopores or the MinIon since the company announced in 2012 that it would begin selling the instrument and the higher-throughput GridIon platform later that year. Three years later, neither instrument is commercially available, and Nature News says that initial tests suggests the speed of the MinIon has not matched expectations while the error rate has been high. 

Still, the company has made improvements to the platform, and some early users are giddy about its plans for the MinIon. Karen James at the MDI Biological Laboratory told Nature News she wants to arm citizen scientists with the instrument to survey biodiversity in Maine's Acadia National Park. 

NASA also reportedly plans to send a MinIon to the International Space Station to test it in microgravity. Aaron Burton at the Johnson Space Center further suggests that a hand-held sequencer, such as the MinIon, could be sent to Mars to search for molecular signs of life.