Star Trek-like ‘tricorders’ promise DNA analysis on the go

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Imagine having a handheld device that could judge the compatibility of a new girlfriend or boyfriend with nothing more than a saliva or hair sample. Or maybe your doctor could have one that assesses risk for developing tens of thousands of disorders. And for researchers, we could have small devices for use in analyzing water and air for the presence of nearby lifeforms.

This sounds a lot like the tricorder technology that has played a prominent role in various incarnations of the Star Trek television and movie series. But it may not be too far from everyday reality.

In 2016, NASA announced a plan to develop just such a device, to detect and analyze tiny amounts of DNA in space flight settings. The initial goal is to use it as a medical diagnostic tool on the International Space Station and for human flights to the moon, Mars and beyond. But it’s an effort that’s likely to spur the advent of new types of life detection equipment for astrobiology. The
technology also is being used to develop handheld devices for research and analysis here on Earth.

Handheld DNA readers

Already, the British company Oxford Nanopore is making MinION, a handheld DNA analyzer that researchers have been using in West Africa to track Ebola outbreaks. They work because the device is fairly cheap — roughly $1,000 — and can detect the virus in body fluid sample within 48 hours. And they are small enough to fit in a pocket.

“The exciting thing about this technology is that it simply hasn’t been possible to pack a DNA sequencer in your suitcase before now,” said Camilla Ip, a researcher at the Oxford Genomics Centre who envisions the MinION eventually connecting with ordinary smartphones. “If anyone had the ability to do DNA sequencing with a mobile phone with attachable DNA sequencer, what could you do with it?”

The MinION device weighs less than 4 ounces.

One possibility is that health officials could routinely carry such devices to help track potentially threatening diseases, such as Ebola and avian flu, around the globe. Other applications include verifying the species or variety of fish going to market, tracking endangered animals, or finding evidence of poaching. In short, pretty much anyone dealing with some aspect of biology could utilize such a device.

And there are some real Star Trek tricorder-like applications. Scientists, for example, have demonstrated that they can survey a body of water – identifying various fish populations – without any need to remove the creatures from the water. Instead, they need only sample the water to find out what’s swimming around. How does this work? It’s DNA – and it routinely leaks from fish and other animals in the water.

Antibodies

If you’re interested in tracking fish populations, DNA works just fine. But on Mars or some other distant location, we don’t even know if life would have DNA, much less utilize the same genetic code found on Earth. But in your body — indeed within all vertebrate animals — is a chemical system even more versatile than DNA in terms of the permutations of chemical control and signaling that it can perform. It’s the immune system. It produces potentially billions of different protein agents called antibodies. Since each antibody can act as a sensor, antibody tests play a major role both in biomedical research and in clinical testing for various conditions. Antibodies can be created by stimulating the immune system of various animals, from humans to rabbits, to mice to chickens, to respond to nearly any type of molecule that’s ‘foreign’ to the body. Application of different techniques can produce a mixture of antibodies called ‘polyclonal’, or solely one type of antibody called monoclonal.

Using genetic techniques, scientists can create what are called phage display libraries of antibodies (and parts of antibodies) for detecting any molecule. This is the basis for another type of ‘tricorder’ under development with a crowdfunding support effort called Scanadu.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.