Penn Researchers Awarded $1.5 Million to Advance Nanotechnology for Gene Sequencing

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Media Contact:Evan Lerner | | 215-573-6604September 8, 2011

PHILADELPHIA -- A research team led by Marija Drndić of the University of Pennsylvania has been awarded a three-year, $1.5 million grant to apply nanotechnology and materials science to the development of “third generation” techniques for DNA sequencing and to lower the cost of sequencing.

The grant was made by the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Drndić is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.

The award is part of NHGRI’s Revolutionary Genome Sequencing Technologies program, which has award $14 million in an effort to enable the everyday use of DNA sequencing technologies by biomedical researchers and health-care providers.

“We are confident that NHGRI grantees will continue to make major breakthroughs in the development of technologies that will eventually lead to the ability to sequence a human genome for $1,000 or less,” NHGRI Director Eric D. Green said.

During the past decade, DNA sequencing costs have fallen dramatically, a drop largely fueled by tools, technologies and process improvements developed by genomic researchers.  The Human Genome Project, which produced the first full human genome sequence, cost approximately $3 billion. Today, the cost to sequence a human genome using “next-generation” DNA sequencing technologies has dipped to less than $20,000.

NHGRI has selected nine teams, including Drndic’s, that aim to develop “third generation” sequencing techniques and break the $1,000 barrier. The teams’ approaches are diverse, integrating biochemistry, chemistry and physics with engineering.

Drndic’s group is applying nanotechnology and materials science to the problem. In a 2010 Nano Letters paper, the Penn researchers laid the foundation for a sequencing method known as graphene nanopore translocation. They demonstrated that a sheet of graphene, a lattice of carbon atoms one layer thick, could be used to differentiate between bases in a strand of DNA by poking a tiny hole in the sheet and threading DNA through it.     

“We have shown that we can make graphene membranes and that we can pass DNA through them, a proof-of-concept for graphene nanopores,” Drndić said. “Now we want to show not only that we can pass DNA through graphene but that we can use it as a sensing material because of its electrical conductivity.”

The NHGRI grant will help fund Drndić’s further research into the feasibility of graphene nanopore sequencing as a cost-effective alternative to today’s methods. ,

“We’re working on improved signal-to-noise-ratio and speed so that one day this technology can be used to sequence people’s DNA,” Drndić said.