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Researchers unveil world's first pocket-sized DNA 'tricorder'

Researchers unveil world's first pocket-sized DNA 'tricorder'
Researchers have written software that, when paired with an iPhone and hand-held DNA sequencer, can sequence genomes on the fly -- like a tricorder, the diagnostic device used in the Star Trek universe. Photo by Adrianna Calvo/Pexels

Dec. 7 (UPI) -- The world's first pocket-sized DNA analyzer, described Monday in the journal Gigascience, could allow researchers to perform genomic sequencing on-the-go.

The device, which recalls the "tricorder" used in the Star Trek universe, combines a mobile handheld DNA sequencer with a new iPhone app called iGenomics.

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The app, the first mobile genome sequence analyzer of its kind, was developed by a team of scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The app's algorithm can be used to identify a variety of viral pathogens, including different strains of the flu virus or Zika virus. Scientists could use the real-life tricorder to identify viral mutations relevant to diagnosis and treatment, they said

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Aspyn Palatnick, now a software engineer at Facebook, programmed iGenomics while studying and working in the laboratory of Michael Schatz, an adjunct associate professor at CSHL.

Palatnick and Schatz realized DNA sequencing technology was getting smaller and smaller, but that there was no software to take advantage of these portable devices.

"Most of the studying of DNA: aligning, analyzing, is done on large server clusters or high-end laptops," Palatnick said in a news release.

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To do genetic analysis in the field, researchers were forced to carry heavy equipment. In addition to lightening the suitcases of researchers, Palatnick and Schatz hope their new technology will make genomic analysis more accessible and affordable.

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Using iPhones, scientists can even AirDrop sequencing data to each and other and conduct analysis at remote field sites where the Internet is unavailable.

Researchers hope their IGenomics will soon be deployed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

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"There's a lot of interest to do DNA sequencing in space. I'm trying to see if there's a way we can get iGenomics up there," Schatz said. "There's a lot of people that are interested to do that. It's a real testament about how it would be impossible to do, you know, any sort of analysis on regular computers. It's just impossible to bring them with you."

For early adopters of iGenomics, specifically those studying the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Schatz and Palatnick have provided a tutorial for detecting the genetic fragments of the coronavirus in biological samples.

The fast-moving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many scientists to adapt their research practices. Schatz and Palatnick hope technology like iGenomics can help.

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"Today, we all carry professional cameras in our pockets, so it's not that hard to imagine in the next couple years, all of us carrying our own DNA sequencers on our smartphones, as well," Schatz said. "There's just so many opportunities to do measurements of our environment and look for pathogens, maybe even do scans of yourself."

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