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Can This Machine Sequence 100 Genomes In 10 Days For Less Than $1,000?

The first entrant in the Genomics X Prize is taking up the challenge of truly cheap and rapid genome sequencing. If it can do it, we’ll know a lot more about the human genome, and the promise for the future of medicine will be off the charts.

We’re constantly promised a genomics-spurred medical revolution. Sometimes, it feels like it will never arrive—or at least that it won’t be accessible to most people for a long time. But the issue deserves some perspective: The Human Genome Project only finished in 2003 (it took 13 years to sequence the first human genome, and since then, the price of sequencing has dropped from $3 billion to a mere $1,000. Life Technologies, the company that can meet that ultra-cheap price point, now says that it’s ready to become the first entrant in the ultimate genomics challenge: The Archon Genomics X Prize.

The X Prize, announced in 2006, has a daunting goal (and a sweet reward) for competitors: $10 million for the first team to "rapidly, accurately and economically sequence 100 whole human genomes to an unprecedented level of accuracy." More specifically, the winning team will have to sequence 100 human genomes from people over 100 years old (Why them? Find out here) with a rate of one error in 1,000,000 pairs of genes, in 30 days or less—all for under $1,000. Each genome must be at least 98% complete.

"The task we’re asking people to do is extraordinary," says Dr. Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. "When you look at X Prizes, they’re really about about setting an audacious and achievable goal and seeing if anyone on the planet can hit it."

Life Technologies’ Ion Proton genetic sequencer, introduced this past January, can already sequence a genome for $1,000 in a single day. That will take it part of the way. Whether it can reach the other parameters remains to be seen.

Diamandis hopes that the Ion Proton will have some challengers before the competition begins in 2013. "At the end of the day, this is an X Prize that’s not going to see 20 or 30 or 100 teams but if we have three or four teams going head to head, that’s fantastic." One potential contender: Illumina’s HiSeq 2500, a system that can also purportedly sequence a genome in a day.

X Prize already has about two thirds of the 100 centenarian genomes lined up, submitted from scientific studies, grandchildren, and some of the centenarians themselves. Once their genomes have been sequenced, they’ll be open sourced.

"The notion of looking at people who have already lived to 100; they obviously have something working for them," explained Craig Venter, the creator of the prize and the first person to sequence the human genome, in an interview with Co.Exist last year. "In the past, geneticists have looked at so-called disease genes, but a lot of people have changes in their genes and don’t get these diseases. There have to be other parts of physiology and genetics that compensate." When we have a full picture of 100 centenarian genomes, scientists will finally be able to figure out at least partially why they live so long.

The genomes will also, according to Diamandis, be the most accurately sequenced genomes on the planet. That should make them more useful for medical applications than any other sequenced genomes in existence. And once they’re available, genomics will inch closer to becoming relevant to all of us.