Adventures in Sequencing

Credit: Edward Marcotte

Credit: Edward Marcotte

When genome sequencing began, creating comprehensive maps of a living thing’s DNA was eye-poppingly costly and time-consuming: Mapping the first human genome took about 15 years and billions of dollars. Later technological advances led genome sequencing to become much more accessible—it now costs only a few hundred dollars and takes just days. The better technology meant major leaps for biomedical research and at-home genetic testing. 

Now a similarly transformative advance out of The University of Texas at Austin promises unprecedented speed and sensitivity for a different type of sequencing: proteins.

In many disorders — among them cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart failure and diabetes — the production of proteins acts as a unique biomarker for what’s gone wrong. Detecting these biomarkers helps researchers understand the causes of disorders and can aid with diagnosis. But the standard way to sequence proteins requires about a million copies of a protein before it can be detected in a sample. 

With the new, more sensitive method, called single molecule fluorosequencing, researchers can sequence millions of individual protein molecules in a sample — and scientists say there’s potential to sequence billions.

“We have created, essentially, a DNA-sequencing-like technology to study proteins,” said Edward Marcotte, professor of molecular biosciences and Robertson Regents Chair in Molecular Biology. 

Being able to quickly learn about thousands of genes underlying human health was transformative. Technology that delivers rapid and comprehensive information about tens of thousands of proteins, also deeply important for health, could be the same type of game changer. The researchers have patented the technology and founded a biotech startup, Erisyon, Inc., to bring it into wider use.