How Cheap Can Genetic Sequencing Really Get?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 8 2012 11:58 AM

How Cheap Can Genetic Sequencing Really Get?

In the New York Times today, John Markoff writes about the rapidly falling cost of genetic sequencing and the potential medical advances that may result. Markoff focuses on Complete Genomics, a California company that hopes to use computing and other approaches to break the $1,000 barrier; one of its machines “blends robotics, chemistry, optics and computing.”

Dozens of companies have been vying for some time to sequence a genome for less than $1,000. (The eternal optimists at the Singularity Hub predicted that someone would crack the $1,000 ceiling by the end of 2009.) The $1,000 mark is, of course, arbitrary in some ways, playing on our delight in rounded numbers. But low-cost genetic sequencing would certainly help bring about the personalized medicine we’ve been promised so long. Complete Genomics founder Clifford Reid has predicted that whole-genome sequencing could someday come “at a cost comparable to a comprehensive blood test.”

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But Eric Topol, author of The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care, is a bit skeptical of some of these optimistic predictions.  He tweets, “Whole genome sequencing at the cost of a blood test? I don't think so (if u include interpretation!)” A follow-up explained, “now we're talking about 6 billion bases, ~40X coverage, lots of unknowns, a big analytical challenge!”

Markoff’s piece is accompanied by a wonderful photo of Complete Genomics’ Bill Banyai looking off thoughtfully into the distance, hands on hips. Would that there were a superhero emblem on his lab wear.

Read more on the New York Times.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

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