The $500,000 DNA Sequencer – Tear Down

BioCurious has amazing friends. We bought a surplus Illumina Genome Analyzer DNA sequencer. For $1.

This Illumina Genome Analyzer (GA) DNA sequencer is from 2008 and originally sold for $500,000. Because of the dropping cost of DNA sequencing, today in 2013 it would be more costly for BioCurious to use this older sequencer than to just using a DNA sequencing service. We were lucky enough to have some friends at Illumina who sold us the sequencer cheap. We decided the best use would be to take it apart to see how it works. Derek Jacoby and Raymond McCauley taught us how “Next Generation” DNA sequencing works and we spent Sunday taking the sequencer apart.

From what I can tell, this is the world’s first tear down of a DNA sequencer. Biotech companies work hard to protect their intellectual property, they avoid releasing schematics or many diagrams showing the functionality. Universities and companies that purchase these machines use them don’t want to “void the warranty”. There are probably under 50 people in the world who understand the functionality and parts inside of the Illumina Genome Analyzer. Today, BioCurious added about 15 people to that count.

DNA sequencing is cheap. In the past 5 years the price of DNA sequencing has dropped by 90% and is continuing to fall. According to an introduction by Raymond, who worked at Illumina for 4 years, the price of sequencing a human genome in 2014 will be cheaper than a chest x-ray. And then after that it’ll be the price of a pizza delivered by Dominos, on its way to a $0.01 per genome. That type of cheap.

The electronics is only part of the story. The major effort to develop this “Next Generation” sequencing technology was in engineering highly accurate polymerase and a reversible terminator technology. “Next Generation” is a term for the current generation massively multiplexed DNA sequencing developed by companies like Illumina and 454 Sequencing. Here’s how next gen sequencing works. The next generation of sequencing is called “nanopore sequencing”. Here’s one video showing how nanopore sequencing works.

How is it built?

High end scientific devices are often assembled from high-end modules created other companies. The real sweat is integration, getting all the parts talking to each other. But it’s cool to open up an Illumina Sequencer and see that well over half of the cost of parts comes from off-the-shelf modules.

(Updated 5/26/2013) Here’s a draft of the parts list and estimated costs for each part:

“Off the shelf” Modules

  • Camera (Roper Scientific, CoolSnap K4)
  • Controllable Laser sources (Point Source)
  • Laser modulation (Point Source)
  • Coolant pump (Oasis 150 Chiller)
  • USB hub (Dlink)
  • Fluidics pumps (Kohelr)
  • Stage controller (Applied Science Instrumentation)
  • Multiposition Actuator Control Module (Valco Instruments)

Custom by Illumina

  • glass optics, reagents, chemistries
  • fitting it all together
  • controller boards
  • CNC metal parts, metal casing
  • optical focusing assembly (off the shelf parts with custom configuration)
  • Laser controller board
  • Fluidics controller board

Come take apart a DNA sequencer at BioCurious! We’ve got another Illumina Genome Analyzer in storage ready for another tear-down class. Here’s more tear-down pictures to gawk at.

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Tito Jankowski lives in San Francisco. He's a public speaker, biotech hacker, and post-hydrocarbon expert. He is the co-founder of Impossible Labs, expediting the post-hydrocarbon economy through partnerships between startups and Fortune 500 corporations. Find him on LinkedIn. Email Tito at blog@titojankowski.comPublic PGP key. PGP Fingerprint: 5A4F 4C5C E8B7 20C3 2867 9100 C56C 881F 13AE 02D7 EFF Guide to PGP Security

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