Thursday, October 11, 2007

Yet Another Far Out Sequencing Idea?

GenomeWeb carries the news that another little-known company, this time English, has thrown its hat into the Archon X-Prize ring.

Base4 Innovation has a website, but it's pretty sparse on details. A lot of cool buzzwords -- nanotechnology, single-photon imaging, direct readout of DNA, but not much more to go on. $500/genome in hours is the target throughput (no mention of error bars on those estimates!)

One of the interesting things to observe as the genome sequencing field heats up is how many non-traditional entrants are being attracted. When the genome sequencing X-Prize was first announced, one of my immediate ponderings was to what degree the entrants would simply be the familiar names in genome sequencing, and which would be out of left field. If I had to place wagers, I would put the outsiders as longshots -- but that's very different than writing them off.

The first X-Prize was personally very exciting, as it would appear to offer a route to realization of a permanent dream -- and I don't have $20M lying around for a trip to the ISS (sizable donations towards that goal, however, will not be refused!). For less than the price of a decent house in the Boston area one will soon be able to get a short trip to sub-orbital space (isn't that what home equity lines were invented for?).

The original X-Prize, though, had a very straightforward goal -- two flights to a certain altitude in a certain timeframe with requirements as to how much of the vehicle was reused (okay, perhaps not so simple to state). The genome sequencing prize has what are really much more (IMHO) comparatively ambitious goals which are harder to define -- after all, the space prize went for replicating a 40-year old feat with private money, whereas the genome sequencing prize will demand going far ahead of current capabilities in the areas of cost and speed.

The space X-prize was won hands-down by one competitor, with nobody else anywhere close. Well, one competitor claimed to the last minute they were close, but it started to smell suspiciously like a publicity stunt for their main sponsor, an utterly shameless internet venture (in applied probability) which also paid streakers to run through the Torino Olympic ceremonies. Will the genome sequencing race also have a runaway entrant, or will it be a photo finish. Stay tuned.

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