Portable DNA Machine Works in the Field

A new type of genome sequencing system for accurate plant identification.

| Winter 2017-2018

  • Exploring for flowers in field.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Andrew Elliott Black

Plant research just got easier  —  at least in terms of genetic identification. A paper published in late August has revealed that a new type of genome sequencing system is both fast and portable, meaning it can provide accurate plant identification directly in the field. According to this study, researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, used the MinION, a portable DNA sequencer developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, to sequence plant genomes onsite in a matter of hours. The successful use of this device during this study could potentially transform the future of botany research.

Previous DNA sequencing devices developed over the last four decades have made it easier to identify plant species, but their potential remained limited because developing lab results usually took weeks or longer. In contrast, real-time nanopore sequencing (RTnS) devices, such as the MinION, promise to let researchers quickly collect, analyze, and act on plant data from the field.

Prior to the study’s publication, scientists performed limited tests with the MinION in Antarctica, the International Space Station, and other extremely remote areas. Now, the research team’s results in Snowdonia National Park prove that the system can sequence the DNA of, and accurately differentiate between, two species of white flowers, Arabidopsis thaliana and Arabidopsis lyrata ssp. petraea, making real-time, rapid genome-based analysis possible in a way that has never been seen before.

Why is portable DNA sequencing important? In short, this technology has significant implications for future plant research. It’s likely that plant sequencing will become a routine practice during field research. Identifying plant species based on sight alone is difficult even for professionals; DNA sequencing will dramatically improve in-field accuracy and allow researchers to identify new plant species in a more precise manner.

For this reason, portable DNA sequencing has tremendous potential for plant conservation. If researchers can identify a plant species when and where they see it, they can take immediate measures to protect it against habitat destruction and wildlife crime. Through further experimentation, the team hopes that the pace of discoveries will steadily advance in order to keep up with the threats plants will continue to face in the future, such as climate change and the spread of plant diseases.

As the technology behind portable genome sequencing continues to progress, botanists anticipate that they’ll find new ways to put it to use. For now, the research team is focusing its efforts on creating a DNA database from a diverse plant collection in order to provide a resource for better plant health monitoring around the world.

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