Gattaca’s time.

Picture by ToNo's worldX PRIZE Foundation is a non-profit foundation based in Santa Monica, CA. They gained popularity few years ago when they listed and subsequently awarded the Ansari X Prize. They offered US$10mln to the first private institution that would be able to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The price was awarded in 2004 and had a lot of echo. After that success, the X-Prize fondation grew stronger so that now they can efford to offer a new batch of prizes, related to different disciplines. One of them is the Archon X Prize for Genomics that also happened to be the largest medical prize in history. The prize is described as

A multi-million dollar incentive to create technology that can successfully map 100 human genomes in 10 days. The prize is designed to usher in a new era of personalized preventative medicine and stimulate new avenues of research and development of medical sciences.

The prize wants to be a kick to speed up research in genomics. It took 10 years and heaps of investments (more than US$ 3 billion ) to conclude the so called Human Genome Project, meaning the complete sequencing of human genome of 2 individuals (drafts but not complete sequences are available for almost 300 for the publicly founded project). Celera Genomics, a privately founded company, did better by completing the sequence in bit more than 3 years. Now the goal is to speed up by several degrees of magnitued by sequencing 100 genomes in bit more than a week and “at a recurring cost of no more than $10,000 per genome”. That says something about what people expect from Scientic progress, doesn’it?

How reachable is this deadline?

Few years have passed from the original publication of the Human Genome. Right now there are a half dozen of companies working on the “next generation technology”: with today’s technology it costs from 1 to 10 US$ to generate a draft of a genome and it takes at least 6-12 months. Honestly I think it’s difficult to say how much technologies can improve in the next years. Probably having better machines is not just enough, one need a better idea on how to do it on a first place. In fact this is actually what happened already when Craig Venter left NIH to found Celera Genomics and decided to compete with the publicly founded Genome Project using not just “more machines” but a different, wiser, approach.

Using state-of-the art sequencing technology supplied by Applied Biosystems and sophisticated internally-developed informatics, Celera pioneered the application of “shotgun” sequencing. While this “shotgun” approach was widely criticized at the time, it has subsequently become a standard method for sequencing complex organisms that is now broadly accepted and routinely used by many of the same scientists who originally scorned the approach. Scores of organisms have now been sequenced using the Celera “shotgun” method.

The shotgun method turned out to be the best approach since Celera won (by far) the competition with the HGP. Now scientist are working to speed up the method even further but perhaps this is not the right path to follow. If you think about it, the very basis of the sequencing method that we still use nowadays are identical to the ones that were first discovered by Fred Sanger at the end of the sixties and then modified (again by him) in the eighties (in fact Fred Sanger is the only chemist to belong to the twice-Nobel-laureate club; interesting fellow, uhm?!). So maybe it’s time to come up with some radically new idea rather than pushing the Sanger method to its mathematical limits! If you have an idea, do not hesitate: you will sure get a Nobel prize and a 10mln USD check! I give my 2 cents: it will be something involving nanotechnologies and/or DNA electrical resistance!