Friday, January 28, 2011


Transformation of mainframe computers into PCs, Laptops and Tablets and further to multi-functional mobile phones is history by now. Same trend is evident in the area of DNA sequencing which used to take long time using bulky instruments till recently. Now comes the news that analogous to PCs and Laptops, gene mapping machines have been developed which can complete the work in less than two hours, the machine costing hardly one tenth that of the conventional systems. Though the new development is awe inspiring, the possibility of misuse of the machine for undesirable purpose cannot be ruled out.

"Audaciously named the Personal Genome Machine (PGM), the silicon-based device is the smallest and cheapest DNA decoder ever to hit the market. It can read 10 million letters of genetic code, with a high degree of accuracy, in just two hours. Unlike existing DNA scanners the size of mainframes and servers, it fits on a tabletop and sells for only $50,000, one-tenth the price of machines already out there. For the first time every scientist, local hospital and college will be able to afford one. If the PGM takes off and regulators let him, your family doctor could buy one--and so could you, if, say, you wanted to see how fast that thing growing in your fridge is mutating. Invented by engineer and entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, such desktop gene machines could transform medicine, agriculture, nanotechnology and the search for alternative fuels. Using DNA sequencing, Rothberg says, doctors in the not-too-distant future will finger genetic weak spots in tumors and treat cancer patients with customized drugs. (This is already happening at some cancer centers.) Kids born with rare diseases will get large portions of their genome decoded to pinpoint the cause, eliminating guesswork and misdiagnoses".

"Outside the lab, rescue workers in the Third World might use portable gene machines to trace bacteria or viruses causing waterborne epidemics. Airport officials could take genetic samples from travelers to track infectious bacteria and viruses before they become outbreaks. Engineers can use DNA readers to concoct designer microbes to grow future fuels. DNA sequencing will help farmers breed supercrops that grow faster, resist pests and drought and need less fertilizer. Synthetic biologists might harness bacteria to make laundry detergent, clothes, furniture, even concrete that self-heals cracks."Sequencing is going to affect everything," says Rothberg, 47. "This is biology's century--just [as] physics was the foundation of the last century." Citing the $100 billion medical imaging industry, he boasts, "I believe sequencing will be that big."

It is some what premature to forecast the business potential for this new contraption and the rosy picture drawn regarding its range of use may not be realistic. True, that the genome decoder will give a fillip to R & D in genetic research, especially in the area of crop production and dire prediction regarding future starvation due to stagnant technology and a growing population may not materialize, if the genetic research is properly directed towards this objective. The machine may probably be more relevant to medical sciences in fighting many dreaded diseases through molecular approach.


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