January 04, 2011
Cheap DNA Sequencer Size Of A Printer

Smaller and cheaper.

Dr. Rothberg is the founder of Ion Torrent, which last month began selling a sequencer it calls the Personal Genome Machine. While most sequencers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are at least the size of small refrigerators, this machine sells for just under $50,000 and is the size of a largish desktop printer.

While not intended for the general public, the machine could expand the use of DNA sequencing from specialized centers to smaller university and industrial labs, and into hospitals and doctorsí offices, helping make DNA sequencing a standard part of medical practice.

It is not as cheap as it sounds because it sequences only smaller genomes and consumes a $250 chip for each genome. But its cost, as well as the costs for competitors such as Illumina, will surely fall. We are definitely on course for the $1000 genome some time in the next 5 years.

What is interesting about it is the size of the machine and the promise of even smaller and cheaper machines in the future. The researchers in the article are intrigued by the idea of doing sequencing in a doctor's office. I suppose that will help in diagnosing infections. Certainly it will be done very widely to identify mutations in cancers and the best methods for treating each cancer. But leaving aside cancer most full genome DNA sequencing will not be done to diagnose a disease. Sequencing will be done to people who are perfectly healthy who just want to understand their metabolisms, disease risks, best diets, their genealogies, and other aspects of who they are.

Initially adults will get sequenced. But (again leaving aside cancer patients) once all adults have been sequenced only babies or candidate embryos from in vitro fertilization (IVF) will be sequenced. Future generations won't go to a doctor's office to get sequenced because they'll be born with known DNA sequences.

I can see one other reason adults will continue to be sequenced aside from cancer patients: surreptitious tissue samples will be stolen from people (or from their hair left on a hair brush or in other ways) to get their DNA sequence. Imagine the equivalent of Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga 20 or 30 years hence. Paparazzi might refrain from DNA sample stealing due to laws against it. But crazed fans will want to do it if they can secretly get DNA sequencing done. Well, if DNA sequencing machines continue to fall in price by orders of magnitude while becoming far more automated and easy to use then individuals will be able to buy DNA sequencing machines. Or they'll send DNA samples offshore to labs in countries with little regulation of the DNA sequencing business.

You can imagine how fans will be able to secretly publish DNA sequences by uploading DNA sequence data files from internet cafes with clues as to which celebrity they are for. Then what happens? Well, web servers with DNA modeling software will allow people to take an uploaded genome sequence and run algorithms to find out what the person looks like.

Recently 13 genetic variants that contribute to hair color were published. Genetic variants for height and eye color have been identified as well. Many thousands more genes for appearance and other attributes will be identified. So it will become relatively easy to take a genetic sequence and figure out whether it might be for a President, singer, politician, or assorted friends, enemies, or love interests.

Go even further into the future and I wonder whether stolen DNA sequences will be used to make babies.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 January 04 08:16 PM  Biotech Assay Tools

yetanotherjohn said at January 5, 2011 10:44 AM:

Imagine the jealous spouse who finds a blonde hair. It won't just be celebrities if you really get down to the projected cost level. Imagine the salesman who wants to know who else is bidding on a contract. And eventually, the full genome sequence could be come as ubiquitous as the SSN as an identification method.

Imagine the self notarizing pen that records the movements used to make the signature (and thus the signature) and a genome sample to positively identify the signer. Once that becomes cheap enough, who would not insist on any business signature including such assurance to be able to prove in court who signed the document. First will be what we now notorize, then contracts and finally credit card purchases. Likewise, speeding tickets signed by genome identifying pens.

The question is less if and more when an application intersects with the price point.

subrot0 said at January 5, 2011 10:51 AM:

This is absolutely scary stuff. The scary phrase is, "Sequencing will be done to people who are perfectly healthy..." and that when it happens. Some wacko scientist says there is a DNA sequence for being rich, being smart, being gay and scariest of all being pure. This does not mean that we should ban sequencing, we need to be wary of it. I can see the hoary hand of government stepping in and saying, "Hello, I am from the DGI (Department of Genetic Information) and I am here to help you."

About the only good thing I can say it is that it won't concern me. I should be dead by then.

a said at January 5, 2011 1:50 PM:


Is there *no* way a person's DNA will ever change between the time they're in the womb, and when they die, possibly of old age?

Cancer is considered one reason for a change, but are there any other possible reasons? I can think of viruses that can infect and cause damage, and just living could cause problems where, in the process, minor damage which doesn't lead to cancerous growth could still impact a person's life.

Gene sequencing could very well become something like a mammogram; get it done every other year or so, compare to your known sequence, and highlight changes that might indicate problems.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said at January 5, 2011 1:55 PM:


TFellow said at January 5, 2011 3:57 PM:

Finally we'll all be wise enough to know who our fathers are.

Ash said at January 6, 2011 3:49 AM:

I agree that people will attempt to secretly sequence the DNA of celebrities, but you didn't mention one of the obvious reasons why they would want to.

We are almost already at the point where we can create a gamete from a DNA sequence.

There is already a market for gametes. Ivy League women can sell their eggs for thousands of dollars. Sperm cells are much cheaper, but sperm from certain types of donors has a nonzero market value.

In the future, if a guy was able to obtain the DNA sequence of, say, Angelina Jolie, he could use it to make an egg cell that might as well be one of Jolie's own. If he then fertilized it with his own sperm and used an artificial womb (another in inevitability given that we can create artificial kidneys now) or a surrogate mother, he could create a baby that was the genetic offspring of himself and Jolie.

As far as genetics is concerned, it would be the same as if he had successfully courted, mated with, and had a child with Angelina Jolie.

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