Sequencing the human genome for just thirty dollarsS

A year ago, it was big news that the human genome could be sequenced for just $50,000. Now, one physicist is trying to make everyone else look ridiculous by saying he can do the whole damn thing for $30.

Geneticists have set an unofficial goal of $1,000 as the target price for a sequenced genome. Prices have continued to fall since the $50,000 breakthrough last year, but the cheapest methods still cost several thousand dollars, which translates to anything from a $20,000 to $48,000 price tag from a genome sequencing service. Considering it's barely more than a year ago that genome sequencing was thought to be a multimillion dollar affair, a price of just thirty dollars seems nothing short of ludicrous.

The secret, according to Harvard physicist David Weitz, lies in a technology known as microfluidics. It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like - developed for medical purposes, microfluidics allows Weitz and his team to create incredibly tiny test tubes containing only a picoliter of liquid. That's a trillionth of a liter (or, for any diehard metric opponents out there, four trillionths of a gallon).

That's a big deal because the primary expense of the genomic process is the chemicals used to induce the sequencing reaction. In this model, each picoliter droplet would be paired with a different discrete portion of the genome, and then injected with the chemicals that would turn each a specific color that could then be used to read the specific genetic information. Weitz says his machines can analyze a million droplets every second.

Since Weitz would use such a tiny amount of chemical reagent - billions of picoliters is still barely more than a thousandth of a liter - he would massively cut down on the cost of sequencing. Indeed, chemical costs are the main figure used to estimate the overall price, and it's using that metric that Weitz can claim his thirty dollar figure. Even that number is a bit inflated - it actually should only cost a buck to run the sequence process, but it needs to be repeated thirty times to ensure accuracy.

Let's try to put this in some perspective. Weitz is saying he can sequence your genome for just $30. That's cheaper than the price of most DVD boxsets. Yes, for less than the cost of the latest season of Fringe, True Blood, Lost, Heroes, or even Warehouse 13, Weitz and his team can unlock the secrets of your genome. (Although it must be said that the V first season set does have Weitz beat, at $25.99. So, um, there's that.)

Of course, for now you might as well just go ahead and pick up that Fringe set you've had your eye on, because Weitz's company GnuBio is currently stuck in funding hell. They are working on securing venture capital funding, and a beta version of the technology that can sequence smaller sequences will go out to two buyers later this year. Although this beta machine is priced at $45,000, even that represents a huge price reduction from comparable products currently on the market.

As if the challenges of finding funding weren't enough, GnuBio is setting itself an even more difficult task. They hope to bypass the genome sequencing services and create machines that won't require any special expertise to use. That's a pretty major hurdle, as genome sequencing isn't exactly known for its low degree of difficulty, but the potential end result is a simple machine that can sequence your genome for less than it costs to hear John Noble's commentaries on the subtle differences between Walter and Walternate. That's probably worth a shot.

[Technology Review]