The process allows researchers to pool dozens of samples and assign the pool—rather than individual samples—with a bar-code identifier. After the sequencing machine returns results from a whole pool, a decoder program can use the theorem to work backward and locate a particular specimen. To find a mutation in a cystic fibrosis study, for example, the decoding program would use each pool's results as the constraints to pinpoint the location of the mutated specimen.
"Think about Sudoku as a pooling theory," he says. "You have a constraint in a row and column [to] have all nine digits. We have the same thing—maybe not as neat—but we have all the sequences in the same pool." From there, he explains, a program can go back and use the same logic to find the mutant DNA.
In the future, sequencing and analysis that would have taken months and $10 million could require just a few days of machine time and $50,000 to $80,000, the study authors note. All thanks to ancient Chinese number logic and a popular pen-and-paper puzzle game—which Erlich now plays regularly.