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TIGR Pleases Some of the People Some of the Time

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If you were among the 1,850 attendees and exhibitors who made it to Boston last month for TIGR’s 14th annual Genome Sequencing and Analysis Conference, your impression of the meeting probably depends on where you spent most of your time: the trade show floor or the scientific sessions? It seems that the success of one is inversely related to the other.

As opposed to years past when the show floor buzzed with activity but attendees complained of marketing pitches thinly veiled as scientific lectures, sessions this year won rave reviews. Some observed that the meeting hadn’t been this scientifically spectacular in years. An opening night panel discussion, “Advancing Toward the $1,000 Genome,” introduced a fleet of new sequencing ideas that have until now been in stealth mode development at Harvard and companies including 454, Amersham, Solexa, US Genomics, and VisiGen.

The panel’s host Craig Venter said of one company’s work in an exclusive interview with GT editors (more from that in our December issue), “It’s pretty hard not to get excited about seeing the balls of DNA in the globular form go through those little posts and get stretched out in the linear form and see that happen to single molecules. And that they can map molecules in seconds or fractions of seconds … that gives me and other people great excitement that there’s totally different ways to do things. Whoever thought of nanotechnology to stretch out chromosomes?”

There were skeptics, of course. Tim Hunkapiller, a coinventor of the 12-year-old four-color capillary-sequence system, emerged from the audience to complain that every GSAC seems to bring a wave of fly-by-night, next-generation sequencing technologies. “This is like déjà vu. … I have to ask you: Why are you going to be any different?”

Harvard’s George Church retorted, “Fluorescent slab-gel electrophoresis replaced radioactive-dideoxy sequencing which replaced a number of other sequencing methods prior to that. We will see a series of technological changes. We don’t know … if any on this table will be those. But it is hopefully inspiring to people in this audience and others to try rather than to just accept the status quo.”

Public sector science dominated the meeting’s remaining two-and-a-half day agenda, provoking attendees with new topics or new approaches to old topics such as atmospheric genomics, RNA interference, microbial analysis, and host-pathogen interactions.

But scientific excitement does not translate to vendor satisfaction at a trade show. Unlike GSAC’s yesteryears when venture-backed bioinformatics startups were scrambling to make deals and everyone wanted to witness the new ABI and Amersham sequencing instruments, vendors this year twiddled their thumbs and few had anything truly new to say. Attendees paid them so little heed that many companies swore by the meeting’s close that this would be the last time they exhibit at GSAC (to be sure, some might not even be around to make that choice a year from now). And the ones with the 1,000-square-foot booths said they’d downsize their displays for future shows.

All that might be fine by TIGR, which made a concerted effort to overcome its reputation for putting on an increasingly commercial meeting. But commercial entities should also consider that technological advances come in surges. Judging by all the innovative ideas that the public sector presented in the science hall this year, it will only be a matter of time before they make their way over, repackaged for promotion, to the room next door.

 

Adrienne J. Burke, Editor in Chief