A person’s genome, Holmlin said, has 6 billion letters of genetic code containing the 3 billion base pairs inherited from his or her mother and father.
The entire genetic code is comprised of just four letters — A,C, T, and G — representing the four nucleic acids that make up DNA.
Holmlin said the letters, in essence, combine to make up words and those words make up paragraphs and those paragraphs form the book of a person’s genetic code. The code is what cells read to make the chemicals essential for life.
Thus far, the Human Genome Project has emphasized variations in gene sequences at the individual base level — giving researchers access to the letters, Holmlin said. The next step in the process, he said, is to figure out a way to look at how all those letters in sequence fit together to form not just words, but phrases, sentences and so on.
Most technologies for decoding the human genome, he said, shred the DNA molecule into small pieces or fragments for analysis.
“That’s like taking a book and tearing it up,” he said. “You can find an ‘a’ and an ‘n’ and a ‘d’ and figure out that is “and,” but you don’t know where that ‘and’ fits, and you there’s going to be a lot of “ands” (in the book).”
BioNanomatrix has developed a technology that allows researchers to analyze a person’s genome in its entirety in a timely and inexpensive manner.
“When you think about what’s going on with gene sequencing and DNA sequencing,” Holmlin said, “what we really want to do is pop a cell open and grab those 23 chromosomes and stretch them out to understand the sequence from beginning to end.”
BioNanomatrix’s technology takes the person’s genome and funnels the DNA molecules into thousands of patented nanochannels on the surface of a nanofluidic chip. “Think of those channels as subway tunnels,” Holmlin said. “All the letters are stretched out into the tunnels, which allows the company to then take a picture of the letters, words and paragraphs as they are organized in the chromosomes,” he said.