The Race to Graph the Human Genome

Last month’s award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to a pair of scientists for the discovery of graphene, a miracle mesh of carbon only one atom thick, was a worthy recognition of its remarkable potential for accelerating the development of clean technology.

Literally thousands of researchers are now exploring its possible uses. As noted previously in NEXT100, “it is being studied for use in solar cells, lithium batteries and ultracapacitors (energy storage devices), high-speed semiconductors, light amplifiers, jet fuels and a host of other applications.”

Just two weeks after the award, a team of physicists at the University of California at Riverside announced important results that could lead to the use of graphene’s special properties to make computers that “store and process vast amounts of information while using less energy, generating less heat and performing much faster than conventional computers in use today.”

Now graphene is being touted for an altogether different application, far removed from the world of energy and electronics. Turns out that thin sheets of graphene might hold the key to the holy grail of genetic science: reading the human genome for under $1,000.

The trick is to find a way to thread a three-foot-long DNA molecule through a “nanopore,” a tiny hole one thousand times smaller than a human hair. Then, by applying an electrical current across the DNA molecule, its unique chemical structure can be determined by the fluctuations in voltage as each different base passes through the hole.

Until now, researchers have had to chop DNA into small pieces, read the sequences with multiple machines, and then combine the results using a computer algorithm, all of which introduce possible errors.

“Current DNA sequencing methods are too slow and expensive for it to be realistic to sequence people’s genomes to tailor medical treatments for each individual,” said Massimiliano Di Ventra, an associate professor of physics at UC San Diego. “The practical implementation of our approach could make the dream of personalizing medicine according to a person’s unique genetic makeup a reality.”



Progress to that end, using nanopores in graphene membranes, was reported this year by researchers at Delft University of Technology, Harvard and MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania. The team at Penn used electron beams to punch tiny holes in graphene just big enough to pass a DNA molecule.



Who knows, the first one to the finish line might just win a Nobel Prize in biology or medicine. All this thanks to a material discovered only six years ago.

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