Back pocket barcoder?

By Bob Grant

It was 2003, and University of Guelph researcher Paul Hebert was taking heat from an audience of taxonomists and phylogeneticists at a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory seminar for suggesting that they barcode Earth's inhabitants using the CO1 mitochondrial gene. University of Pennsylvania ecologist Dan Janzen remembers standing up, pulling a plastic comb out of his back pocket, holding it aloft and saying, "What I want to see is what Paul is talking about, but in something that costs what this costs."

Janzen had a vision of a future where a portable, disposable barcoding device would be in the back pocket of every school child, customs agent, and third world farmer on Earth. This device, the white-haired, bushy-bearded Janzen explained, would accept a bird feather or...

Mostafa Ronaghi, a researcher at Stanford's Genome Technology Center, says that the technology to create a portable - though not quite disposable or comb-size - barcoder exists today. "Every single piece of that device has been implemented," Ronaghi says. "It has not been integrated yet." When this integration occurs, Ronaghi says, going from tissue sample to barcode sequence could take as little as two hours and cost less than one dollar. Today, barcoding a tissue sample costs at least five dollars and takes at least three hours.

One California-based biotech company is already taking the technological steps towards creating an integrated, portable barcoding device. Microchip Biotechnologies, on whose board Ronaghi sits, will introduce its Apollo 100 bench-top device in the middle of 2008, according to chief commercial officer Barney Saunders. The Apollo 100 cannot take an unprocessed tissue sample and spit out a sequence, but it does automate the in-between reactions necessary to prepare a DNA sample for sequencing. A microfluidic chip, on which infinitesimal amounts of reagents are automatically mixed to process DNA for sequencing, is the heart of the Apollo 100. "That's where the magic occurs," says Saunders. According to Saunders, the Apollo 100 will cut the manual labor, the amount of reagents, and the cost necessary to prepare DNA for sequencing by about two-thirds.

Microchip Biotechnologies is also building the prototype of another device, the Apollo 400. This laptop-size, "luggable" device, according to Saunders, will allow forensic scientists to do short tandem repeat (STR) typing on-site at crime scenes. The Apollo 400 will take raw biological samples, such as blood or semen, purify the DNA, use microfluidic chips to prepare the DNA, and produce characteristic, size-separated STR fragments in a fraction of the time laboratory typing now takes. The Apollo 400's ability to take unprocessed tissue samples and produce genetic information useful to an end user, says Saunders, is conceptually similar to a device that might take an insect leg and output a barcode sequence.

Saunders says that leaping from an STR-typing device, which will be marketed to the law enforcement community, to a similar barcoding device requires financial input from the barcoding community. "The components to build such a device definitely exist," Saunders says. Ronaghi agrees that the technology is there. "It's not rocket science, it's just a matter of economy," he says. "I'm not sure there is a market yet."

In a back hallway, during a break in the action at a recent international barcoding conference in Taiwan, Janzen reiterates his classic comb speech using immediately available materials. Between mouthfuls of finger foods, Janzen holds up a crumpled paper cup in his right hand and repeats his vision for "the little handheld gadget that costs what this costs."

Janzen's dream of a portable barcoder might not be far off. "I wouldn't blink if it was two years from now," he says, "but I also wouldn't blink if it's six years from now."

But Ronaghi says that though Janzen's disposable barcoding device is far from becoming a reality, if her were adequately funded, he could develop a slightly larger and less disposable device in much less time. "If you put $10 million into that technology, I could create a portable barcoder in one year."

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