Next Generation Sequencing – Ion Torrent Semiconductor Sequencing

We’ve finally made it to the sequencing step of the NGS workflow. This post we will discuss the technology and process behind the Ion Torrent sequencing step. Next time, we will review the Illumina sequencing process.

When we left off, the final product of the clonal amplification had been prepared – Ion Sphere Particles (ISPs) covered in single stranded amplicons (hopefully all of the same amplicon). Next, control Ion Sphere Particles are added to the mix, along with sequencing primer, which is complimentary to one of the adapter sequences added back in library preparation. The primer is annealed to each of the amplicons on every ISP. This mixture of control ISPs and specimen ISPs is then loaded onto the chip. The size of the chip is determined by the number of bases needing to be sequenced. There are three different types of chips for the Personal Genome Machine (PGM) – 314, 316, 318 – and five different types for their GeneStudio S5 system (510, 520, 530, 540, 550), offering enough coverage for a single sample of a hotspot panel, all the way up to enough coverage for a specimen of exome sequencing. Each of the chips contains a top layer covered in tiny wells. Each well is just large enough to fit a single ISP. The ISP solution is loaded onto the chip, then flowed over it by centrifuging it in different directions, in order to attempt to get as many ISPs into wells as possible. The chip is then ready for sequencing.

Each well of the chip can be thought as of the smallest pH meter in the world. So before sequencing can be started, the instrument must be prepped (initialized) so that all of the reagents added to the chip are in the correct pH range. On the PGM, this takes approximately an hour and requires some hands-on steps and high quality 18MΩ water. On the GeneStudio S5, the reagents are added and the initialization is begun and, as long as everything works correctly, doesn’t require any other hands on time.

After the initialization is complete, the chip is loaded onto the instrument. The sequencing run is started and runs according to the plan prepared before the run. Thermo Fisher’s Ion Torrent uses semiconductor sequencing technology. Nucleotides are flowed over the chip one at a time. If the nucleotide is incorporated, a hydrogen ion is released. This release of hydrogen decreases the pH of the liquid surrounding the ISP. This pH change is then detected by the sensing layer beneath the well, where it is converted to a voltage change and is picked up by the software and recorded as that nucleotide. Let’s say two nucleotides in a row are incorporated (two G’s complementary to two C’s) – double the hydrogen is released, which results in double the signal, so the software will record two G’s in a row. The benefit of this type of technology is that it is fast – it only takes 15 seconds for each nucleotide flow, so a 200bp fragment can be sequenced in less than 3 hours.

Image courtesy of




-Sharleen Rapp, BS, MB (ASCP)CM is a Molecular Diagnostics Coordinator in the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Nebraska Medicine. 

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