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The last ABI3730xl goes offline

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.

The truly masterful stroke was providing support for the open source development communities and financing annual bounties for community-determined critical needs. Knocking the cost of Big Dye down to a few cents a unit and developing a user-producible replacement for NanoPop made the entire process accessible to everyone from biotech labs to garage bioshacks. And that meant that poor and emerging countries and non-territorial states could build their own molecular facilities and develop their own intellectual capacity.

Here’s the thing: for all we talk about the raw power of high-throughput genetics, at the core, we’re just reading DNA. As long as the method is robust and reliable, the rest–the exoSequencers, the Yotta series, the PiriPiri and Lyre systems–is all just details, a sentence in the methods section. The data is what matters, and when it comes to robust and reliable, the 3730xl shined.

Conservation genetics was particularly reliant on these machines as funding for conservation efforts dried up like so many inland seas. Not only were the sequencers cheap, but they already served as the workhorse for conservation genetics, providing data to manager and decision makers that wasn’t clouded behind the ambiguity of new tech. For conservation genetics, “cutting edge” is a liability, leaving your results exposed to challenges based on methodology. Policy moves slowly and trusts the tools that have been tried and tested for decades, when it trusts science at all. While the 3730s were outpaced by newer, more advanced machines, they had the advantage of legacy.

It’s not just in conservation genetics where the 3730xl was more than adequate. Paternity testing, medical diagnosis, even forensic analysis is still done using methods developed on Sanger sequencers (the fact that you can still get the death penalty based off of a genetic comparison that doesn’t even meet the American Kennel Club’s requirements for proving dog pedigree is probably something that should have been remedied in 2010, but that’s another story entirely).

Of course they faded from use eventually. Even the best made tools will wear out, and the utility of the 3730xl was directly proportional to the size of the development community. As each machine finally went offline, the community grew just a fraction smaller. The five of us committed to the very last sequencer did so as a labor of love, and to see just how far we could push this turn-of-the-century tech into the future.

The 3700-line of DNA Analyzers (of which the 3730xl is the last hold out), were among the most important tools in the genomics revolution, performing the vast majority of the grunt-work for early triumphs like the Human Genome Project. That the tech has continued in the field for over 40 years is a testament to the quality of these machines. Forty years ago we were wielding flip phones and floppy disks, and the internet was still being dismissed as a fad.

It’s now up to the DIYDNA community to develop an entirely open-source replacement for this old workhorse.


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.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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