Monster Machines: This Floating Lab Can Sequence DNA In Real Time, Anywhere In The World

Until now, sequencing the genomes of many marine animal species has been all but impossible, what with the need to transport delicate specimens thousands of miles back to a terrestrial laboratory. But thanks to this mobile genomics lab created by the University of Florida, researchers will be able to run a specimen's DNA without returning to port and obtain their data in a matter of hours, not days.

Housed inside a retrofitted 6m shipping container, the seafaring genomic lab devised by UF neurobiologist Leonid Moroz integrates a commercially-available $US50,000 Ion Torrent Personal Genome Machine System onto a levelling benchtop that can keep it upright in rough seas. The sequencer maintains a satellite uplink connected to the university's HiPerGator supercomputer, which performs the actual data crunching and can fully sequence a genome in a matter of hours before beaming it back to onboard researchers.

Not only does this method drastically increase turnaround times, it allows researchers to do more with fewer specimens. Conventional sequencing methods require multiple specimen samples to account for shipments that are routinely lost or damaged in the mail, a matter that's made worse by the rapid degradation of most marine genetic material once its out of the water. The on-board method eliminates shipping losses while maximizing the opportunity to collect usable genetic materials.

During a pair of recent test runs aboard a UF alum's 141-foot yacht, the Copasetic, the crane-loadable laboratory successfully transcribed data on thousands of genes in 22 organisms, including some rare comb jellies which are notoriously difficult to biopsy and sample.

The project has received support from NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Florida Biodiversity Institute. Moroz hopes to develop a fleet of these modular labs that can be loaded onto any sufficiently big ship and send them out to the most remote corners of the seas and start hunting for new forms of life.

"Life came from the oceans," Moroz told the AP, explaining the project's conservation goals. "We need a Manhattan Project for biodiversity. We're losing our heritage." We're also losing untold potential scientific, pharmaceutical, and industrial discoveries. With roughly half of all new drug compounds coming from nature, the ocean's unexplored depths could hide tens of millions of beneficial compounds. And unless we get a move on cataloging the sea's bounty before changing sea conditions annihilate them, we might not ever. [Reuters - UF - ABC]