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Genetics Unzipped podcast: A brief history of DNA sequencing

In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, presenter Dr Kat Arney takes a look at how we learned to read the book of life, from the earliest days of DNA sequencing to the very latest futuristic technologies.

Ever since we found out that DNA contains the instructions for life, we’ve been trying to decipher its contents.

Throughout the late 1970s and early 80s, innovative researchers like Walter Gilbert and Fred Sanger were developing methods for reading the order of ‘letters’ (bases) in DNA that make up the genetic code of all living organisms.

The big format battle of the 80s: Sanger vs Maxam-Gilbert

Both took a share in the 1980 Nobel Prize for their work on DNA sequencing, and their two methods were quickly adopted by labs throughout the world. In a neat parallel with the war being fought at that time in the world of consumer electronics between Betamax and VHS video, the two methods battled it out for dominance in the early 1980s.

But although Maxam-Gilbert sequencing was initially more popular, Sanger sequencing eventually won out thanks to its simplicity and ongoing improvements that made it ever faster, cheaper and safer than Maxam-Gilbert sequencing, which was eventually largely forgotten. 

The Next, Next-next and Next-next-next generation of DNA sequencing technologies

In the 2000s came so-called next-generation sequencing technologies, with the advent of pyrosequencing and sequencing by synthesis – the method that underpins Illumina’s Solexa technology that currently generates more than 90% of the world’s sequencing data. 

Today, sequencing machines in labs around the world are churning out billions of basepairs of DNA data, and the very latest techniques even promise to allow us to read DNA inside cells. The cost of reading a whole human genome has gone from $2.7 billion dollars for the first one to a few hundred or less (or even zero, depending on how you count it and who’s paying).

We’re also now seeing the introduction of even more advanced technologies such as PacBio’s long read SMRT sequencing approach, Oxford Nanopore’s MiniION sequencers, and even the possibility of reading DNA in situ within cells.

The future of DNA sequencing technology

Widespread cheap access to rapid DNA sequencing has revolutionised almost every aspect of life sciences research, from personalised medicine and clinical diagnostics to conservation, infectious diseases, evolutionary biology and much, much more.

But there is undoubtedly much more to come as we continue to learn how to read the book of life. In the words of Sanger’s co-Laureate Walter Gilbert, “I think the future of science will continue to astound us.”

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Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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Genetics Unzipped / NGS / Podcast / Sequencing