We should create a global DNA threat-detection network to fight future pathogens


Enlarge / Artist’s impression of scientist doing DNA science. (credit: Roger Richter / Getty)

We’re running a series of companion posts this week to accompany our special edition Ars Lunch Break podcast. This is the second of three guest posts centered around Rob Reid’s TED talk from yesterday. Today, geneticist George Church weighs in with his thoughts and opinions on synthetic biology and a world-wide “DNA detector” net. Tomorrow we’ll have a guest post from microbiologist Andrew Hessel.

Since the start of the millennium, we’ve improved the cost and quality of reading DNA 10 millionfold. This technology applies identically to our own genomes and to those of the most deadly pathogens. Yet we’ve barely begun to use this new “superpower” of DNA scrutiny to monitor our environment for threats to human health.

Many of the enabling technologies for highly distributed DNA detection networks are already here. For instance, we now have palm-sized devices that read DNA in nearly real time, and they can be attached to our smartphones—which themselves can append and transmit audio, video, and GPS data. Thousands are already using these new tools. They’re based on nanopore and other single-molecule electronics—which have very low reagent and tiny fabrication costs, and they are super-portable (a fraction the size of a phone).

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