Sunday, February 08, 2009

Any Genome Sequence You Want, As Long As It's Human

It's been interesting reading dispatches coming from bloggers Dan Kobolt and Daniel MacArthur who are attending the Marco Island conference, the big yearly confab on bleeding edge sequencing technology. How have I resisted this conference for so long, especially with the climate draw???

One company that is again receiving a lot of attention is Complete Genomics, which is proposing to build a set of sequencing centers to sequence human genomes at $5K a pop. What is striking is that their business model is to sequence only human genomes and nothing else, which particularly surprised Daniel MacArthur at Genetic Futures.

As a biologist and someone fascinated with all genomes, such a policy is not a welcome thought. But, as someone who has worked in an industrial high-throughput production facility, I think I can reverse engineer the logic pretty well (I have no connections to or inside information from the company).

Why would you want to do this? Simplicity. By focusing on only a single genome, all sorts of simplifications are created. Complexity costs significant money & time, and it is often what seems trivial that ends up being very costly. Just allowing a second genome in the door creates all sorts of additional work on the software side, and if that second source requires different sample prep that's an additional headache on the lab side.

Having only one genome kicking around also creates some interesting opportunities for quality control both for each sample and for the whole factory (which is what they are talking about building: a sequencing factory). One genome means only one reference sequence to compare against & one set of pathological problems for their assembly algorithm to be fortified against. One genome also means that if you see another genome in your data, you know something is wrong -- and if you see the same one genome repeatedly you may have a factory-wide problem.

"Any color you want so long as it is black" got Ford to the top of the U.S. automotive heap, but it didn't keep them there -- I believe that GM's offering colors helped push them into first. So will the market support Complete's vision? I think it can.

Complete is apparently talking about running a million genomes per year. At $5K each, that would be $5 billion, some serious cash flow. I don't know if they've estimated the market correctly, but it doesn't seem ridiculous. If a large fraction of the world's wealthy decide to sequence their genomes (and their children's too) and if sequencing tumors becomes semi-routine, a few million human genomes a year doesn't seem totally ridiculous. Of course, Complete would have to fight with all the other players for a share.

That implies a question: what comparable markets are they giving up? I'd love to see broader "zoonomics", where we go through the living world sequencing everything, but that's all going to be grant funded. Smaller genomes may also be completely mismatched with this sort of technology -- without some sort of multiplexing (complexity!). Similarly, it's not easy to see some big commercial market for metagenomics -- it will remain fascinating & there's no end to the ecological niches to explore, but who in the private sector is going to pony up major money for it? Oncogenic mouse models will supply lots of tumors for sequencing, but again probably not a big private sector activity.

The one area I can almost envision is sequencing valuable livestock or agricultural lines to understand their complete makeup. If this were done not only for parentals but for offspring in breeding programs, then perhaps a big market would be generated. But, is it really worth sequencing to completion or will some cheaper technology for skimming the surface suffice? If there is a market, then a logical business direction for Complete might be to do a joint venture or spinout focusing on alternate genomes -- but either the prize would need to be big or the one genome business model failing for that to be worth diverting attention.g

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