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Human genome sequenced with pocket-sized device

Scientists at UEA have been part of an international team to assemble the most complete human genome ever using a single technology – a pocket sized, portable DNA sequencer.

The team used the emerging ‘nanopore’ technology to sequence a complete human genome in fragments hundreds of times larger than usual, enabling new biological insights.

The research, published today in Nature Biotechnology, involved scientists from the University of Nottingham, the University of Birmingham and UEA, in collaboration with teams in the US and Canada.

The researchers generated a new method for sequencing “ultra-long” sequences of DNA, more than a thousand times longer than the original reads used to generate the human genome reference sequence in 2001.

Recently the team have used this method to generate the longest ever read sequenced at 1,204,840 bases in length, 8,000 times longer than a typical sequencing read. Scaling the sequencing pore to the size of an adult fist, this is the equivalent to analysing a 3.85 km (2.4 mile) long rope.

This drastically reduces the complexity of piecing together the genome compared to previous techniques.

The authors speculate that these reads and longer ones can be generated routinely in future, enabling human genomes as complete as the reference genome which was the subject of over 20 years of labour and more than $2bn of investment.

As well as sequencing previously uncharacterised regions of the genome, the new analysis provided greater insight into regions of the genome that are responsible for functions such as immunity and tumour growth.  

This in turn may have a profound impact on clinical practice, for example, detecting large genome rearrangements important in the development of cancer and in determining a person’s inherited repertoire or antibody genes.

The ability to sequence using a portable device that only costs $1,000 may put also personalised genome sequencing into the mainstream.

UEA’s role in the study was to generate a portion of the human sequence data.

Dr Justin O’Grady, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “This important study demonstrates that we are getting ever closer to widely accessible human genome sequencing.

“Our laboratory at UEA has pioneered the application of nanopore sequencing for rapid infection diagnosis. Significant advances in this technology have now enabled us to sequence the human genome and assemble it with high accuracy using an inexpensive, pocket-sized device.

“In the future, this technology could potentially be used for the rapid, near-patient diagnosis of diseases such as cancer.”

Dr Matt Loose, of the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences, said: “This is a landmark for genomics – the long reads that are possible with nanopore sequencing will provide us with a much clearer picture of the overall structure and organisation of the genome than ever before.”

The study uncovered new information about the major histocompatibility complex, a region of the genome used for tissue typing before a transplant and to help scientists understand immunity. The area is particularly difficult to analyse as it contains many duplicated regions including gene families and repeated sequences. No two individuals – apart from identical twins – have the same sequence in this region in their genome.

The researchers used the ultra-long sequences generated in the project to determine the lengths of individual telomeres for the first time directly from the sequenced data.

Telomeres are the caps at the ends of each DNA strand which protect our chromosomes and play an important role in how our cells age. The older a cell, the shorter the telomeres, and the disruption in the pattern of the telomeres DNA is also a significant issue found in many tumours. These regions are also difficult to study because they are highly repetitive, often appearing identical.

The international research effort used the Oxford Nanopore Technologies MinION sequencer. The sequencer, approximately the size of a mobile phone, sequences the DNA by detecting the change in current flow as single molecules of DNA pass through a nanopore – or tiny hole – in a membrane.

The research involved scientists from the University of Nottingham, University of Birmingham and the University of East Anglia in the UK; UC Santa Cruz at the University of California, Genome Informatics Section of the NIH and the University of Salt Lake City in the USA; and the University of British Columbia and University of Toronto in Canada.

‘Nanopore sequencing and assembly of a human genome with ultra-long reads’ is published in Nature Biotechnology on January 29, 2018.

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