April 20, 2008
$100 Human Genome Sequencing Within Sight?

Long time readers know that I expect much more rapid advances in biotechnology because biological research is coming to resemble the computer industry with miniature lab devices designed for low cost mass manufacture and automated use. The devices operate on biological systems at the scale of individual cells and molecules. Here's another example of how much this trend cuts costs and speeds progress. Microfluidic devices will enable personal complete DNA sequencing for only $100.

It currently costs roughly $60,000 to sequence a human genome, and a handful of research groups are hoping to achieve a $1,000 genome within the next three years. But two companies, Complete Genomics and BioNanomatrix, are collaborating to create a novel approach that would sequence your genome for less than the price of a nice pair of jeans--and the technology could read the complete genome in a single workday. "It would have been absolutely impossible to think about this project 10 years ago," says Radoje Drmanac, chief scientific officer at Complete Genomics, which is based in Mountain View, CA.

Such a low cost will of course be achieved using nanofluidic devices. Basically, something like computer chips but designed to manipulate individual molecules of DNA.

Each DNA molecule will be threaded into a nanofluidics device, made by Philadelphia-based BioNanomatrix, lined with rows of tiny channels. The narrow width of the channels--about 100 nanometers--forces the normally tangled DNA to unwind, lining up like a train in a long tunnel and giving researchers a clear view of the molecule.

Cheap DNA sequencing will revolutionize the way many people mate. People will surreptitiously check the DNA sequences of prospective mating partners. "Does she have the genes I want to give to my children? If not, I'll make up some excuse about how we have different goals in life and just move on." Or "Does he have the genetic right stuff? If not, I'll tell him he's not spiritual enough for me and say I have to end it". Just how will people lie in order to avoid telling someone they are too genetically inferior for baby making?

Then there's the markets for donor sperm and eggs. With the ability to select among large numbers of egg donors and a far larger number of sperm donors the use of DNA testing will enable buyers to get much closer to their ideal genetic profile. Expect the resulting kids to be smarter, healthier, with different personalities (how exactly?) and far better looking. People who use donor sperm and egg will produce smarter and more successful kids than the average people who choose mates who will help them raise their genetically own kids.

How much and how soon will microfluidic devices speed up the development of stem cell therapies? Genetic selection of sperm, eggs, and fertilized embryos will certainly speed up human evolution. But stem cell therapies will let us rev up and rejuvenate our existing old natural design bodies.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 April 20 10:31 AM  Biotech Advance Rates

kanzure said at April 20, 2008 1:39 PM:

Hey, I'd like to mention some other projects like polonator.org, diybio.org, biohack, biopunk, oww, etc. These projects are geared towards $0 genomics projects and do-it-yourself DNA sequencing (pyrosequencing). So really, the cost has already dropped to zero, it's just not really 'commercial' - it's grassroots.

- Bryan

David Friedman said at April 20, 2008 3:50 PM:

One point that may be implicit but that you don't explicitly discuss is that cheap gene sequencing will make it much easier to find out what the connection is between genotype and phenotype. If you have genotypes of a hundred thousand people and some information on them--IQ, income, marital status, some measures of health, ...--you can use statistical analysis to spot particular features of the genotype that correlate with desirable or undesirable features of the phenotype. Having done that, one is in a much better position to use the information in the sort of way you describe.

Randall Parker said at April 20, 2008 5:03 PM:

David Friedman,

I go back and forth in my own mind about just how much I should repeat in each post. I do not want to bore regular readers. On the other hand, what percentage of the people who read a single post of mine haven't read other previous ones I've done in that topic area?

Anyway, yes, cheap DNA sequencing will cause an explosion in the rate of finding which genotypes map to which phenotypes. Therefore we need much more systematic collection of personal life histories of people to have them be comparable once the cost of DNA sequencing goes down. We also need collection of DNA samples from participants in the various longitudinal studies so that their DNA sequences will be comparable against their known histories for heart disease, cancer, criminality, and assorted other topics where longitudinal studies have been done and are being done.

To put it another way: We are soon going to be faced with more DNA data than other types of data about each person. In order to sort out small influences on personality or health risks or cognitive abilities that come from genetic variations we will need very detailed information about large numbers of people. The genetic sequencing costs are falling so quickly we really need to shift our attention to how to get enough of the other types of information that we'll need to make sense of all the sequencing data.

rps said at April 20, 2008 8:45 PM:

Ubiquitous personal DNA will also mean the end of cuckolding. I've read that something like 10% of western children are not actually the children of the man presumed to be the father. This would probably benefit beta-male good provider types at the expense of alphas, but we have plenty of factors weighing the other way these days too.

I agree that it will revolutionize the way people will mate, but not the way you say it will. It's usually pretty obvious if somebody is too inferior to make babies, personal genome or not. Most women are still going to want a real dad for their kids, not a sperm donor (in the real world, the kind of women who don't are more likely to be the dumb ones with poor impulse control rather than Murphy Browns) and the pool of available men won't improve just because we know their genomes. Even today, most women could probably get knocked up by a smarter, stronger, more alpha-ish man than they could get to marry them, but still most children are born in wedlock (though illegitimacy rates are rising). If anything, this will cause demand for custom babies, made from sperm and eggs that are selected or designed to have "better" variants of critical alleles (which is already done for certain genetics diseases IIRC), making the technology for making them more common and affordable. A man would still consider offspring of his modified or selected sperm to be his, assuming you don't go wild with the modifications and make something unrecognizable, and would raise the kid as his own.

This will also put "accidental" children at a huge disadvantage. I think we can assume very few of them will get into a good school, for example. This will put a lot of pressure on women to have abortions, even if they're married and can afford a kid. For some reason I am also reminded of the island with nothing but double alphas in Brave New World, who ended up killing each other while jockeying for status.

Randall Parker said at April 20, 2008 9:50 PM:


1) You can get a lot more info from sequencing info than from a guy's looks and academic credentials and occupation.

2) You can find out sooner in a guy's life what is genetic potential is by genetic testing than by looking at what he's accomplished.

3) Genetic potential very importantly includes looking at recessives. A guy who has two copies of a dominant IQ boosting gene is a better mating choice than a guy with just 1 copy. They'll be equally smart. But they won't have equal odds of having a smart kid. Ditto for other desired traits. Guys who have 2 copies rather than 1 copy of a dominant gene become more attractive with genetic testing.

4) Genetic testing importantly allows embryo selection. That can't be done today for the vast bulk of traits.

5) Genetic testing will increase the value of the best egg and sperm donors versus mates who marry and help raise kids.

HellKaiserRyo said at April 20, 2008 10:03 PM:

"This will also put "accidental" children at a huge disadvantage. I think we can assume very few of them will get into a good school, for example. This will put a lot of pressure on women to have abortions, even if they're married and can afford a kid. For some reason I am also reminded of the island with nothing but double alphas in Brave New World, who ended up killing each other while jockeying for status."

Hmm... the double alphas remind me of the stag hunt game. One could supress the desire for relative status in the offspring. But, this is the "payoff dominant outcome." There is still incentive in such a system to resist supressing that desire which would be the "risk dominant strategy". I thought eliminate the desire for relative status would eliminate many negative and zero-sum games that mires humanity.

David Govett said at April 20, 2008 10:48 PM:

One's genome says little without the epigenetic information. Unless you know which genes are switched on--and this varies continually--you know little about a person.

Larry said at April 21, 2008 7:22 AM:

@David Friedman - Even if we have your genome, we are still in the very early stages of understanding what it means. There are very few single-gene traits. The genotype-phenotype relationship is mind-bogglingly complicated.

@rps - I think a lot of those cuckolded already know that they are betas and can tell that their kids don't quite resemble them. Looking for red-flag genes is a very poor mate-filtering technique. My guess is that just about everyone has some gene that could be considered disqualifying. I can imagine a day in which most men are consigned to the ash-heap and women fertilize themselves with only the best stuff they can find. Which they will probably buy. Racehorses are all descended from a handful of progenitors - those having prized genomes. And prize bulls have busy mating schedules indeed. Of course, for humans, women will make the choices themselves, because there is no "owner" in the picture.

Many men will accept this because the resulting kid will be smarter, stronger, more musical, more artistic, more beautiful/handsome, etc., etc. Conversely, this will increase the rate of single mothering even further.

I'm not sure I agree that many women will also reject their own genomes in favor of a "superior" egg. We're all familiar with the notion of the selfish gene that uses its human host to reproduce itself. It seems like those genes that are more selfish will survive, and the rest will wither away.

@Randall - Today at least, I think we have a long way to go before hiring managers will just look at the genome and skip the resume and the interview. Right now, genomes are useful for looking at a few red flag items. But otherwise, the lived life tells you much more about those whose genomes approach the average.

@HellKaiserRyo - Genomics will enable earlier and more definitive "tracking" of kids, accidental or otherwise. But the other changes above will radically transform the pool of people, with a steady decline in the number in the lower tracks, leading to a decline in human genetic diversity.

When fewer parents have a genetic interest in the success of their children, will they choose to have children at all? The expense is high...

david gobel said at April 22, 2008 7:13 AM:

The explosive complexity of interacting factors both within the organism and via the environment argue that we have no clue as to what is really good in the long run. We CAN figure out much of what is medically bad though and this is already being addressed.

What is missing in most thinking is the wild card entity who is necessary for species flexibility/viability. Traits for this "type" are almost unknown from a genetic standpoint. How do you code for a Michael Faraday who was the recipient of an unique religious point of view that fueled his selfless explorations. How do you account for the bicycle mechanics/inventors in advance when defining the genetic soup? IQ is a quiveringly miragelike number...not that I deny it having some general utility.

One of the significant values of the design of the sexual reproductive regime is ensuring very wide variety allowing for massive species experimentation within a steadily growing niche. It makes sense to eliminate genes causing obvious handicaps and diseases. But it will be wise to tread carefully beyond that point in the early going.

As this exploration proceeds, more and more people may begin to observe that we don't really know well enough just what "GOOD" itself IS. ISTM this would be a valuable place to spend some research time.

Lono said at April 23, 2008 9:18 AM:

This is most excellent news!

I have had my daughters cord blood frozen - for the common benefits - but also to have a perfect zero-day genetic sequence.

I'd like if the cryogenic companies would get up to speed and start preparing to offer genetic sequencing as part of their service.

(I'd really like if they sent you the sequence on a hidden digital flash drive embeded in the base of your child's unique dna-based collectable scuplture - but they really seem clueless about this up and coming technology.)

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