Both before and after the 9th Annual Family Tree DNA International Conference for Genetic Genealogy this past weekend, Max Blankfeld and Bennett Greenspan were gracious enough to allow interested administrators to visit and tour their labs. I’ve toured other DNA labs, but their lab has very cool leading edge equipment. It was a wonderful treat to see it in action.
What I didn’t have was my “good” camera, so I’m sharing my iPhone photos.
I went on the last tour available and there were only a few of us, so it an excellent opportunity to see things up close and personal.
This lab is much larger than I expected. Gene by Gene, in addition to doing all of the DNA processing for Family Tree DNA, DNA Traits and the National Geographic Genographic project, is doing a significant amount of processing for research institutions such as medical schools. While we were there, they were getting ready to prep to run a large order of several hundred exome samples.
But come along with me and you can see for yourself. Bennett gave the tour personally. The bad news is that you’re going to have to rely on my memory, because nothing was allowed in the lab other than our cameras. This was to prevent contamination.
There are other contamination prevention methods as well. Anyone with open toed shoes had to put on booties. Here’s my friend Lisa, who comments periodically on my blog, suiting up for the tour. Next, we were given lab coats to wear inside the facility which we then took off and left by the door, but inside the lab, as we left.
The first stop inside is where they prepare the kits for shipping to customers when an order is placed. They purchase the empty vials, prepare the formula and fill and cap the vials, all automatically.
The “capping” process is the most interesting part and caused them the most consternation in trying to figure out the best way to do this. Bennett said they worried about having a non-tethered lid that might be dropped by the customer, and contaminated, as it turns out, needlessly.
After the kits come back, all but one of the vials goes into storage, shown below, beside the lab, for future testing. This environment does not have to be specially controlled outside of a normal office environment.
The vial that gets opened for the testing undergoes a different process that begins with removing the DNA from the vial and mixing it with a chemical solution that shakes the DNA out of the cells.
This is done overnight in a shaker machine. Reminded me of a paint shaker.
Have you ever seen a custom $600,000 freezer with a robot to retrieve the frozen goods? No? Well, you’re about to. If you have ever tested with Family Tree DNA and there is any DNA left in a vial that has been opened, it’s in this freezer which took the vendor 7 weeks to assemble on site. Capacity is over 550,000 vials and it’s about half full currently.
After the DNA is shaken out of the cells, that mixture has to be handled differently. It has been barcoded during the entire process and the prepared DNA mixture is then put into storage plates which are robotically stored. This retrieval process is initiated when an order is received by the robotic software. Keep in mind that the unit holds more samples than Family Tree DNA has today, in a very regulated deep freeze environment. Depending on what this robotic arm is doing, meaning moving plates around or extracting a specific vial, it changes its own tool on the end of its arm. It knows where every vial is in the freezer. I must admit, my Mom who has been gone since 2006 has DNA there and it made me feel kind of funny to know I was visiting “her.” But my DNA is with hers, along with a whole lot of other family members, so I guess it’s just one big family reunion in there.
After the correct vial is retrieved and the DNA mixture is extracted, the liquid is put onto a “chip” for the autosomal testing. The chip itself is about an inch by maybe 3 inches and holds 12 tests.
The DNA is pipetted into the side and then it is wicked into the chip itself.
Here is a set of two chips loaded and ready to be processed. This means that at total of 24 individual samples are being sequenced. Notice the little grey square to the size of each larger grey square. That tiny grey square is where the DNA mixture it placed and it’s wicked into the larger grey square for processing. We asked how that is done and were told that the technique is part of Illumina’s trade secrets.
Gene by Gene owns several sequencing machines. I know they have at least two Sanger sequencing machines and 4 different sizes and types of Illumina sequencing machines that run chip based tests like the Geno 2, the Family Finder and now the Big Y tests, in addition to the exome and full genome tests. These machines are incredible given that they can run hundreds of tests at a time, which is also how they have dropped the test costs exponentially in the past few years. Some equipment is optimized for running many samples but more slowly and some for running fewer samples but more quickly.
After reading and being automatically scored, the DNA results are reported to the client.
At the end of the lab tour, just outside, is the Customer Service area where the Customer Service Reps work. I’ll tell you what, they had their hands full this week and weekend with their regular call load, a conference and an office full of nosey and interested project administrators.
Of course, during the course of the day, I had to visit the restroom. I’ve always loved Max and Bennett’s sense of humor.
In case you don’t know, the Y chromosome is much smaller than the X, hence, the difference in the signs.
Let’s just say that in light of their new product announcement, the “Big Y,” I did a bit of a structural modification for them:)
Thanks again to Max and Bennett for their hospitality.
Jennifer Zinck also wrote about the Friday lab tour on her blog, Ancestor Central.