DNA sequencing creates a map of DNA. The process reads DNA like a computer reads a hard drive. Eventually, the technology will allow scientists to understand and manipulate life functions.
In 1955, Sanger discovered how to sequence DNA, which would later win him the Nobel Prize. He is one of four people in the world to win the Nobel Prize twice.
In 1977, the first full DNA sequence was performed. Allan Maxam and Walter Gilbert created a chemical-based method that allowed purified samples of DNA to be sequenced without further cloning.
Progress proceeded rapidly. By 1987, Sanger sequencing machines could generate about 1,000 base pairs per day. By 2001, automated genomic sequencing centers generated up to 10 million base pairs per day. In 2005, new instruments were released that allowed the inexpensive sequencing of entire genomes. These were called “next-generation sequencing,” illustrating the difference of the STEM crowd from their more creative classmates. This period is referred to as the “democratization” of sequencing due to the low-cost and potentially high-impact sequencers.
Next-generation sequencers were highly parallel, with many base pairs being sequenced at the same time. They worked at a tiny scale, typically on a chip. The sequencers were fast, low-cost, and read a small amount of DNA rather than a large part of the strand.
The Human Genome Project, sequencing an entire person, started in 1990 and completed in 2003; it cost about $1 billion. Today, sequencing an entire genome takes about an hour and costs about $100.
DNA sequencing is seen as the key to future medicine. For example, scientists can eventually sequence a person, a virus, and devise a specific medicine that kills a specific virus in a specific person. The method is already in primitive use in the field of oncology, where customized immune “t-cells” are tuned to kill cancer cells. When it works, patients report being able to literally see cancer tumors melt away after being injected. While the medical technology promises to eventually be a Star-Trek like system — take a scan and give a shot that cures anything — it is still in its infancy.