Oh Goody -- Prizes for Genomes!

But seriously folks...it's good news that prizes are being posted for biological technologies.  A couple of weeks ago, the X Prize Foundation announced a $10 million prize for demonstration of "technology that can successfully map 100 human genomes in 10 days."  This is not the first such offer; Nicholas Wade notes in the New York Times that Craig Venter set up a $500,000 prize in 2003 for achieving the Thousand Dollar Genome.  Venter is now on the board of the X Prize Foundation and it appears his original prize has been expanded into the subject of the current announcement.  We definitely need new ways to fund development of biological technologies.

Here's more coverage, by Antonio Regalado in the Wall Street Journal.  It will be interesting to see if anyone can come up with a way to make a profit on the $10 million prize.

The prize requires sequencing roughly 500 billion bases in 10 days.  It isn't possible to directly compare the prize specs with my published numbers since there is no specification on the number of people involved in the project.  If you throw a million lab monkeys running a million low tech sequencers at the problem, you're set.  Except, of course, for all the repeats, inversions, and rearrangements that require expertise to map and sort out.

According to a news story by Erika Check in Nature, the performance numbers cited by 454 Life Sciences appear to be encouraging: "Using the 454 technique, one person using one machine could easily sequence the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome in a hundred days, [Founder and CEO Jonathan Rothberg] says," which is about 3.75 million bases per person per day.  And he is optimistic about progress in reducing costs:  "As the process gets faster, it gets less expensive. "It's clear that we'll be able to do this much cheaper," predicts Rothberg, who says that in the next few years scientists will be able to assemble a human genome for US$10,000."  At the present pace of improvement, this looks to be about 2015, though new technology could always get there sooner.

There seems to be some divergence of expert opinion about where a winning technology will come from.  Writing in Science, Elizabeth Pennisi, notes:

Charles Cantor, chief scientific officer of SEQUENOM Inc. in San Diego, California, predicts only groups already versed in sequencing DNA will have a chance at the prize. Others disagree. "I think it is unlikely" that the winner will come from the genome-sequencing community, says Leroy Hood, who invented the first automated DNA sequencer. And Venter predicts that the chance that someone will come out of the woodwork to scoop up the $10 million is "close to 100%." The starting gun has sounded. 

Indeed.  I had sworn off thinking about new sequencing technologies, but the prize has got even me to thinking...