UK firm Oxford Nanopore has unveiled two new products that could revolutionise gene sequencing for science and medicine: a new DNA sequencer that could be able to handle a complete human genome in as little as 15 minutes, and a USB thumb drive that can read DNA directly from blood and in some cases with no sample preparation.

The two products were presented last week at a conference in Florida. The company says its nanopore 'strand sequencing' technique means that the four biochemical letters of DNA can be read more quickly and less expensively than by other established companies in the field.

The first product – GridION – is the size of a DVD player, and consists of an array of proprietary protein nanopores embedded in a robust polymer membrane. Individual strands of DNA are passed through a tiny hole in a cell membrane, known as a nanopore, allowing each GridION node to deliver tens of gigabytes of sequence data per 24 hour period.

Nodes may be clustered to increase the number of nanopore experiments being conducted at any one time, if a faster time-to-result is required. For example, a 20-node installation using an 8,000 nanopore configuration would be expected to deliver a complete human genome in 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, the miniaturised MinION device is the size of a USB memory stick, and is designed for portable analysis of single molecules. Oxford Nanopore said the device's low cost, portability and ease of use are designed to make DNA sequencing universally accessible.

“The exquisite science behind nanopore sensing has taken nearly two decades to reach this point; a truly disruptive single molecule analysis technique, designed alongside new electronics to be a universal sequencing system,” said said Dr Gordon Sanghera, CEO of Oxford Nanopore. “GridION and MinION are poised to deliver a completely new range of benefits to researchers and clinicians.”

Oxford Nanopore intends to commercialise GridION and MinION directly to customers within 2012. A single MinION is expected to retail at less than $900 (£567), and a new model of versatile pricing schemes will be introduced for the GridION system, designed to deliver a price per base that is as competitive as other leading systems.

The DNA sequencing machines currently on the market, made by US companies Illumina and Life Technologies, are much bigger and take far longer. Life Technologies recently made a splash with its announcement of a machine that could read a whole human genome – 3bn DNA letters – for just $1,000 in less than a day.

“Oxford Nanopore’s technology platform is truly disruptive and game-changing and is poised to deliver new applications and general benefits to science and medicine,” said Alan Aubrey, chief executive of IP Group, which owns 21.5 percent of Oxford Nanopore. “The significance of this technology introduction is, in computing terms, analogous to moving from the mainframe to the laptop.”

Potential applications include screening genetic material, prenatal screening for genetic defects and diagnostic tests aimed at identifying genetic mutations that have applicability in agricultural, environmental and medical markets, according to Aubrey.