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Cheaper DNA sequencing possible with computer chip technology

BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

July 22, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • A novel DNA sequencing technique using semiconductor chips shows promise to lower the cost of sequencing, researchers from the company Ion Torrent announce this week in Nature.
A novel DNA sequencing technique using semiconductor chips shows promise… (Ion Torrent )

The race to decode a person’s genome on the cheap got tighter this week. The sequencing company Ion Torrent announced this week in Nature that it used a $49,500 machine, based on computer chip technology, to unravel a full human genome–aptly, using the DNA of Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel.

The same machine decoded the E. coli strains from a recent outbreak in Germany in a matter of hours, and is drawing praise for its novel approach to reading DNA.

But in the goal to bring the price point down to $1,000 per genome, some caution not to get too excited—yet.

Unlike some of its other competitors, the Ion Torrent machine uses semiconductor chip technology to read DNA—this Nature News article explains how DNA is washed across a $99 computer chip with more than a million tiny wells (the chips were $250 not too long ago).

Such chips tend to get cheaper with time. Their cost roughly follows “Moore’s law” (named for the Intel co-founder) that predicts the number of transistors that can fit on a computer chip approximately doubles every two years.

So even though the latest demonstration of Moore’s genome wasn’t cheap, the technology has room to cut costs in time. The project cost about $200,000, a representative for Ion Torrent said; but redoing the project with a newer chip, with about 10 times greater capacity, would lower the cost to about $70,000.

One researcher says that the cheap cost appears to come with drawbacks in accuracy. Daniel MacArthur, a genomics researcher, had this to say in his Wired Science blog:

“Let’s be very clear about this up front: by modern standards, this is a poor-quality genome. … The yield of the Ion platform (in terms of bases per dollar) is of course going up rapidly, but I think it’s important to emphasise that Ion Torrent is not yet a remotely competitive technology for affordable whole human genome sequencing.”

Affordable sequencing would pave the way for personal genomics. And in case you were wondering about the billionaire’s genes, here’s what the analysis revealed: a typical amount of freckling, high chance of brown eyes, risk for fungal nail infection and an increased risk for mental retardation (which clearly did not come to fruition).

healthkey@tribune.com

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