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Low-cost genomes for all?

1 March 2004
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 247

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is inviting proposals to develop new, cheap genome sequencing technologies, aimed at developing a '$1000 genome' by 2014. The entire human genome sequence, the first draft of which was published three years ago, cost an estimated $3 billion, with mammalian genome projects today costing between $10-$50 million. NIH hopes that this figure can be reduced by four orders of magnitude, meaning that techniques for producing 'personal genome sequences' could be available in ten years time. NIH is also seeking to fund interim research to develop a '$100,000 genome', which is thought to be achievable within five years.

According to Jeff Schloss, director of the technology program at the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), 'the science is ready' to develop low-cost genome sequencing. Speaking to the Scientist magazine, he said that companies competing for the NIH funds will need to argue that their technology is best for either the five or the ten-year goal. He also said that completely new technologies would probably be needed to achieve the $1000 genome. Cheap genome analysis would allow scientists to easily compare genes from different species and individuals. It might also eventually form the basis of personalised healthcare, in which detailed knowledge of a person's genetic make-up could help doctors diagnose, prevent and treat common diseases.

The idea of cheap genome sequencing has been around for some time: last September, the J.Craig Venter Science Foundation offered a $500,000 prize for scientists developing the technology closest to achieving the $1000 genome. Craig Venter, as head of US firm Celera Genomics, developed a novel 'shotgun approach' to genome sequencing, which the company used to produce one version of the human genome sequence (said to be that of Venter himself). At the time of its publication Venter attracted criticism from scientists involved in the publicly-funded Human Genome Project for not making Celera's data freely available to the scientific community.

Three years later, Celera has now deposited all its sequence data in the public GenBank DNA sequence database, where it joins the data produced by the HGP. The move was prompted by the publication, by Venter's group, of a comparison of the two versions of the human sequence, in the online section of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Commenting on the paper, genome expert Bob Waterston, of Washington University, told The Scientist that it would be interesting to compare the differences between the two sequences, although he added 'it would have been good to have had this information three years ago'.

Meanwhile, US gene discovery firm Incyte is to close down its genomics headquarters in California, the journal Science reports. The company aimed to sell genetic data to drug discovery firms and academics, but has faced stiff competition from the availability of free genomic data supplied by publicly-funded sequencing projects. 'As the volume of public domain data has increased, our ability to secure high-value subscriptions for our proprietary genomic data has decreased' said John Keller of Incyte.

Celera defends human sequence
The Scientist |  19 February 2004
Human genome data to be released
BBC News Online |  18 February 2004
Incyte throws in the towel on genomics, trims workforce
Science |  13 February 2004
NIH offers $1000 genome grant
The Scientist |  23 February 2004
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