From Ebola to Zika, Tiny Mobile Lab Gives Real-Time DNA Data on Outbreaks

From Ebola to Zika, Tiny Mobile Lab Gives Real-Time DNA Data on Outbreaks

A genomic surveillance system which fits in a suitcase can help health workers to quickly understand the spread of viruses and break the chain of infection of Zika and others


A revolutionary DNA sequencing instrument which could help break the chain of transmission of viruses such as Ebola and Zika has been developed by British scientists.

It can help identify mutations in viruses in real time, allowing health workers in emergencies to quickly establish the evolution and geographical journey of the virus through communities.

The pocket-sized MinION device was developed by an Oxfordshire science company, and results published on Wednesday in the journal Nature show it was able to help identify the unique genetic sequence of the Ebola virus in patients within 24 hours.

Previous tests involved shipping blood samples back to highly controlled labs such as those in Porton Down with the results returned to the field weeks or a month later.

“It was just lovely to see how the virus was moving around, not a year later, but within 24 hours, because we could act on it in real time,” said Miles Carroll, head of research at the National Infection Service at Public Health England, and a senior author on the study.

Their tests were conducted in Guinea last April on 142 blood samples.

Because the kit is portable it can be used in the field easily, giving health authorities real time information about the source of infection.

“Each virus has a unique genetic signature and when that’s known we know where the hell the bug came from. So we could tell, for example, the virus had not come from, say, the village five miles away but from the prefecture 50 miles away. The patient could then be asked if anyone from that prefecture had visited their village or did they have a close relationship with someone from that prefecture,” he said.

The Ebola virus, which spread rapidly in 2014 killing at least 11,3000 people, consists of as many as 20,000 units of genetic code and mutates on average every two weeks.

The Makona strain of the Ebola virus, which was responsible for the recent west Africa outbreak, contains an estimated 16 to 27 mutations in each copy of its genome.

During the on-site genomic surveillance, scientists from the European Mobile Laboratory were able to send data back to study co-author Nick Loman and his PhD student Josh Quick at Birmingham University, who sequenced and analysed the results. They then translated the information into a language the epidemiologists on the ground could understand. The epidemiologists, in turn, were able to swiftly allocate resources to households and villages in the infection chain.

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