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Only 20 years ago DNA sequencing was expensive, time-consuming and required specialised lab equipment. Oxford Nanopore Technologies’ low-cost, fast, portable, nanopore-based direct sequencing technology is opening up a wide range of new applications that would not have been possible in the early 2000s.

A scientist working on Oxford Nanopore's GridION technology © Oxford Nanopore Technologies
A scientist working at Oxford Nanopore Technologies

Next-generation DNA and RNA sequencing is changing the way we live and work in areas as diverse as human ancestry, forensics, personalised medicine and agriculture. Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) is at the cutting edge of these new and exciting developments thanks to its unique technology, based on the research of Professor of Chemical Biology Hagan Bayley. Professor Bayley and his group developed a technique whereby individual molecules such as proteins or DNA bases could be ‘read’ as they passed through a nanopore (similar to a naturally-occurring protein pore in a cell membrane). An electrical current is passed across the nanopore and different molecules create different disruptions in current, each with a unique signature, making it possible to identify them.

Professor Bayley knew that this was an incredibly sensitive technique that had a huge potential application in many areas, and so in 2005 he founded ONT together with former Oxford chemists Dr Spike Willcocks and Dr Gordon Sanghera, with backing from IP Group. Having demonstrated the essential idea in an academic research lab, the company took on the demanding task of building a practical device that was capable of reading strands of DNA and RNA, not just individual molecules. Along the way, they achieved extraordinary portability and the ability to read very long DNA sequences. Their core device, MinION, is currently the only hand-held, portable, real-time device for DNA and RNA sequencing.

The company’s goal is ‘to enable the analysis of anything by anyone, anywhere’ and its technology has already revolutionised DNA and RNA sequencing. Devices such as MinION have made significant contributions to research, medicine, environmental monitoring and food and water safety analysis. They have been used for real-time analysis of Ebola and Nigerian Lassa Fever viruses in the field as part of ongoing epidemics, and were also used to sequence Zika virus genomes, demonstrating that north-east Brazil was a focal point of the Zika epidemic and played a key role in its spread. Nanopore sequencing is now used in over 100 countries and, since early 2020, the company's technology has been used in the surveillance of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Since its foundation, ONT has brought together many multidisciplinary teams of scientists to develop its innovative technologies, and by 2021 it had over 600 full time employees, most of whom were based in Britain. In October 2021 the company made a record-breaking debut on the London Stock Exchange as one of the UK’s most valuable spinouts, reflecting the huge impact that its products have had and will continue to have in the future. 

Research funded by: Oxford Nanopore Technologies, BBSRC; the European Commission and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)