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Welcome to The Genome Price is Right: As Venter Holds Court, the Numbers Fly

BOSTON, Oct. 2 - Tonight's plenary panel discussion at GSAC, "The Future of DNA Sequencing: Advancing Toward the $1,000 Genome," hosted by Craig Venter and Gerald Rubin, quickly turned into a genomics version of the game show "The Price is Right."

 

"I had to do a little better than the thousand-dollar genome," said VisiGen Biotechnologies CEO Susan Hardin, one of the panelists, about her company's efforts to develop a single-molecule sequencing method using both a modified polymerase and nucleotides. "So we're going for the $995 genome."

 

George Church of Harvard, the only academic panelist, countered with an even lower bid: $710. 

 

Eugene Chen, who heads US Genomics, was more moderate. He said, "we could do it for much less" than $1,000. Chen predicts his company's nanochip will be able to sequence entire contiguous human chromosomes within three or four years.

 

US Genomics already has a product on the market for small genomes that can generate sequence reads from DNA chunks as large as 200,000 base pairs. Venter is already smitten with the technology--he recently gave US Genomics a spot in his new sequencing center--but professionally showed no bias toward it during the session.

 

The other panelists included Michael Weiner of CuraGen subsidiary 454, who unveiled the company's solid phase, PicoTiter sequencing technology for the first time; Tony Smith of Solexa who presented its single molecule array sequencing strategy; and Trevor Hawkins of Amersham Biosciences, who said that with further miniaturization and incremental improvements in read length Amersham may be able to offer a $30,000 human genome in two to three years.

 

Daniel Densham of the mysterious, super-hyped Mobious Genomics was scheduled to participate in the discussion, but backed out. When Densham questioned the panelists about the feasibility of their single molecule detection methods during the Q&A portion of the session, VisiGen's Hardin wouldn't let his absence on stage go unnoticed.

 

"I had hoped to hear you speak tonight too," said Hardin. "I thought you were going to be talking."

 

An awkward silence followed after Densham said that he would answer any questions Hardin had for him.

 

Tim Hunkapiller, dressed in signature blue denim shirt and blue jeans, posed the final question. "This is like déjà vu," he said. At every GSAC conference there are talks about next-generation sequencing technologies that promise to replace the four-color capillary-sequence system he invented with his brother Michael 12 years ago. "So I have to ask you: Why are you going to be any different?"

 

"Fluorescent slab-gel electrophoresis replaced radioactive-dideoxy sequencing which replaced a number of other sequencing methods prior to that," Church responded. "We will see a series of technological changes. We don't know who if any on this table will be [a part of] those. But it is hopefully inspiring to people in this audience and others to try rather than to just accept the status quo."

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