The Internet of Living Things
10 A.M.—It is hot and sultry in the slums of the Campina Barreto neighborhood on the north side of Recife, in Brazil, and a public health worker named Glaucia has just taken a blood sample from a young, pregnant patient. Glaucia feeds it into a portable sequencer the size of a USB stick, plugs the sequencer into her computer and waits for the results. The device identifies genetic markers of the Zika virus, but flags the fact that this is a mutated strain that could be resistant to existing vaccines. She reports the information to her colleague, Franco, at the nearest hospital and to public health authorities. They need to know that this could signal the start of an outbreak.
This scenario is imaginary, but researchers around the world now use pocket-size genomic sequencers to rapidly detect resistant pathogenic strains in hospitals, explore microbial diversity in Antarctic ice valleys, and diagnose infectious agents in food supply and aboard spaceships (the device works in microgravity). In 2015, for example, Johanna Rhodes from Imperial College London relied on portable sequencers to identify the genetic makeup of Candida auris, a multidrug-resistant fungal pathogen that had caused an outbreak in a London hospital. The same year, a research team from Birmingham University flew to Guinea and used the same technology to detect strains of Ebola in human blood. In a few months, they had sequenced 142 Ebola genomes on the spot, producing results less than 24 hours after receiving an Ebola-positive sample.