Slashing the cost of DNA sequencing

Life Technologies announces the launch of its Ion Personal Genome Machine (PGM) sequencers. Costing 10 times less than most other DNA sequencing machines, the Ion PGM will make it possible for many labs around the world to own their own.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

Finally, a DNA sequencer that, not only fits under the Christmas tree but also costs 10 times less than the leading brand.

Earlier today, Life Technologies announced the launch of its Ion Personal Genome Machine (PGM) sequencers. Sequencing – which determines the order of DNA bits called nucleotides – could tell you things like ancestry or risk factors for diseases. And at $49,500 each, more labs around the world can have their own.

The Ion PGM is developed by Connecticut startup Ion Torrent, which was bought by Life Technologies this past summer. The company, based in Carlsbad, California, has just begun shipping orders to cities in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific.

“Point-and-shoot digital cameras opened up photography to everyone because they were fast, cheap and easy – and people saw the results immediately, so they quickly became better photographers,” says Jonathan Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent. “That’s what Ion is doing for DNA sequencing.”

As ABC reports:

Companies that make gene sequencers have been trying to make them faster, cheaper and more accurate since the 13-year-long $3 billion international Human Genome Project was completed with the help of a room the size of a football field filled with washing-machine-sized sequencers.

This is the first of its kind to use ‘semiconductor sequencing technology.’ As Nature News explains:

Most current sequencing technologies label nucleotides with dyes, which must then be optically read as sequences, but the Ion PGM functions by directly detecting electrical signals on a disposable chip costing $250 (pictured).

The technology is also what makes the system cheap and scalable, Rothberg adds, comparing it to a personal computer. “As you democratize it, it gets cheaper for everybody."

The Ion PGM, however, can’t really contend with established platforms such as Illumina’s HiSeq, which costs about $700,000 but can read 250 billion bases in a single run.

With its capacity of 10 million–20 million bases per run, the Ion PGM will probably be useful mostly for work with moderately-sized samples. But it can apparently deliver results in just two hours, rather than the week that many other sequencers take.

Realistically though, the costs will add up very quickly. For starters, a $16,500 computer server will be needed for data analysis.

But in an effort to improve the technology, Life Technologies has launched a $7 million, 7-part crowd sourcing competition called the Life Grand Challenges Contest.

A $1 million prize will be awarded for each challenge, and the first three are to (1) produce twice as much sequence data, (2) do it twice as fast, and (3) do it with twice the accuracy. The judges include Nobel laureates in chemistry. The other four challenges will be announced next year.

“While we are on track with our internal research and development,” says Gregory Lucier, Chairman and CEO of Life Technologies, “the Grand Challenges are intended to incentivize the user communities that inevitably grow around open technology and encourage them to help accelerate discovery even further.”

Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE, for those of you who are interested) had a sales of $3.3 billion in 2009.

“We don't have all the answers,” says Rothberg. “What we have is a flexible, low-cost platform that we are going to keep making better and cheaper.”

Images: Ion Torrent

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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