On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.
Yesterday, at 0800 UTC+12, the last remaining ABI3730xl DNA Analyzer was powered on for its final run. The humble Sanger sequencer, dozens of generations obsolete, was kept in service via the monumental effort of several Pacific NGOs dedicated to maintaining research independence for small island states. I had visited Nauru twice over the last year to help service the aging machine and develop novel solutions to keep the old beast running. Alas, these machines were never built to last forever, and with dwindling reagents stores and a vanishing development community, the last holdout of the toughest sequencers ever built was finally laid to rest. Over its 37 year life, it analyzed more samples than any other sequencer, old-Gen, Next-Gen, or X-Gen.
Though ABI was late to the open-source party by several decades, the release of the 3730xl source code was a watershed moment in open science and decolonized science. Built of stouter stuff than their competitors, these machines were tough. With just a bit of TLC, they could operate in lab conditions that would crush lesser machines. They were forgiving of low quality samples and ad hoc reactions, cranking through muddy microsatellites as if the samples were pristine. They were easy to fix and simple to run. When paired with a standard multi-material printer, they were user serviceable at almost all levels, and the parts that couldn’t be fabricated were readily available from the Shenzhen-centered DIYDNA community.
The 3730xl was liberation technology in the highest form. With the source-code opened, developers were able to expand the machine’s capabilities far beyond its original design, finding new and truly novel uses. The once onerous software license, which prevented many labs from selling their old machines and new labs from buying used sequencers at a steep discount was gone, sequencers were free to move among users without fear that replacing the derelict computers they shipped with would permanently lock out new owners. An open source operating system meant software improvements, which once came slowly when the software was still supported and then not at all, began to flow. Suddenly, it seemed as though the 3730xl could do anything. (more…)