The MinION is a breakthrough portable DNA sequencer produced by Oxford Nanopore Technologies in the UK. It weighs less than 100 grams, is approximately the size of a chocolate bar and is powered by USB. Not restricted by size, the device allows sequencing to occur in isolated places where large sequencing devices cannot be used such as mountain tops, the Arctic, jungles, and even on the International Space Station.
The MinION also offers real-time data analysis while the sequencing is occurring. Other sequencing instruments normally require you to wait for the completion of a sequencing run before analysis can occur. The rapid availability of results could prove crucial where response time is critical.
The technology became available to ESR through an early access programme beginning in 2014. ESR’s team of ‘Virus Hunters’ used the technology to look at whole genome sequencing of the influenza A virus. The now-published research assessed rapid virus identification using the MinION to help combat disease outbreaks faster than traditional methods. This illustrated the potential of the MinION in mitigating infection and further spread of not only influenza but other viruses during an outbreak. Work since then has focused on metagenomic sequencing for novel virus detection, which involves sequencing all DNA present in a sample, rather than sequencing each pathogen one at a time.
This cutting-edge technology is advancing ESR's methods of gathering and analysing sequencing data both in New Zealand and beyond and is proving to be a real game-changer. Overseas, the MinION has already been used by researchers to investigate outbreaks of infectious diseases in remote locations in Africa. It was used to trace contacts and investigate the evolution of the Ebola virus in Guinea during the outbreak in 2015. Traditionally these locations have not had the resources to sequence outbreaks and, as the samples are highly dangerous, they cannot easily be sent elsewhere.
ESR sees the potential of this technology and how it can be applied across diverse disciplines, including their health, environmental science and forensic science programmes. ESR Research Assistant Nicole Moore says “This area of work is rapidly changing, not only with upgrades to the technology and software but also the variety of international work that is being published using the device. We are trying to apply the MinION to areas of our work where we think the unique features of the device, such as the small size and portability, will offer an important advantage.”
This project is funded by the ESR Core Research Fund from the Ministry of Business Innovations and Employment. Read the full research paper of ESR's work sequencing an influenza genome using MinION technology here.