Zibra Joao Pessoa

Mobile DNA sequencing in Joao Pessoa, Brazil. Image by Ricardo Funari

A pair of mobile DNA sequencing laboratories are travelling through areas worst-hit by Zika virus

During the Ebola outbreak, DNA sequencing proved itself to be a valuable ally for diagnosis and monitoring the spread of the virus. Now scientists are applying the lessons learned in Africa to tracking the Zika virus outbreak across Central and South America. 

Led by the University of Birmingham, a team of scientists have deployed two mobile laboratories on a 30-day sampling road trip through areas with the highest reported rates of microcephaly. Zika virus infection during pregnancy has been linked to the condition in newborns, characterised by abnormal or incomplete brain development. From Belém in northern Brazil to Salvador in the south, the team are looking to test samples from 750 patients to understand the origins of the virus, its spread, and whether specific Zika strains are associated with microcephaly. 

Zibra Natal

The MinION portable DNA sequencer is used to analyse the Zika virus in north-east Brazil. Image by Ricardo Funari

“Zika is spreading across the Americas and the Pacific and geneticists are playing catch-up,” said Dr Nick Loman from the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham. “There are very few publicly available DNA sequences and hardly any from the regions where cases of microcephaly are most prevalent.”


Mobile laboratories are made possible by portable DNA sequencing systems, and enable researchers to respond to the outbreak much more rapidly than ever before. This study will use our old friend, the MinION sequencer from Oxford Nanopore.

“The data we gather will help to understand how the virus has spread across Brazil, Latin America, and make better predictions about how it might spread to other regions in the future,” explained Loman. “We are also able to bring cutting-edge genomic surveillance technology to public health laboratories previously unequipped with this capability.”

During the Ebola outbreak, Loman and a team of colleagues were able to generate results using MinION less than 24 hours after receiving a sample