Ion Torrent is the first - and at present the only - company to enter the Archon Genomics X Prize, set up in 2006 to award $10 million to whoever could sequence 100 genomes of people aged 100 years or over in a specified timeframe. The technique used must cost no more than $1,000 per genome and demonstrate an error rate under 0.0001% (per cent). The original timeframe to complete the task was set at 10 days, but this was extended to 30 days so to encourage more entrants, who have until May next year to enter. The competition is now due to commence in September 2013, delayed from January 2013.
Dr Craig Venter, who led the original private sector effort to first sequence the human genome and is co-chairman of the competition, said companies simply do not have the technology required to undertake accurate sequencing for $1,000 per complete human genome - a benchmark considered necessary in order to use genome sequencing as a routine tool for medical purposes. 'Despite what their ads say, their technology doesn't measure up', Dr Venter said. 'I regard the X Prize as truth serum'.
Sequencing technology is improving on the current method which relies on detecting fluorescent light signals transmitted when DNA bases are incorporated, but which requires expensive optical sensing equipment. Ion Torrent plans instead to use new semiconductor-based technology, which measures tiny changes in pH each time a base is incorporated.
UK-based Oxford Nanopore Technology is developing sequencers that feed DNA strands through nanometre scale holes and senses the passage of each base, while another company, Illumina, whose spokesperson told Reuters it was not planning on competing for the prize, claims its new HiSeq 2500 machines will be able to sequence an entire human genome within a day.
Ion Torrent founder and CEO, Dr Jonathan Rothberg, estimates that in 2006 completing the competition with the technology available at the time would have taken 33 years and cost $100 million.
Dr Venter, however, believes that 'the trivial part of the equation to solve is the sequencing technology'. 'It's necessary, but not sufficient', he said.
Ion Torrent will not be given the samples until September next year and will have to submit its results by 4 October 2013. The data will then be shared with other researchers.