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severalog

As cheap as free?

J. Harry Caufield

It now costs about $3000 to $5000 to sequence a human genome. That cost is 10,000x less than the same effort had required just 10 years ago. Obviously we can't get the technology to be much cheaper, right? The sequencing machinery itself is growing cheaper: as of last year, a decent next-generation sequencer could be purchased for $80,000 to $120,000 or so, down from half-million dollar models from just a few years ago. The limiting factor here may be how the machines are intended for research purposes. A well-funded lab can certainly afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single machine, to say nothing of the reagents required to actually get data out of it.

Ubiquitous DNA sequencing has the potential to upend nearly everything we know about personalized medicine, but only if it's not cost-prohibitive. Basic molecular biological techniques certainly have applications in clinical or diagnostic environments. Sequencing could really go beyond that and become relevant to everyday folks. It could just be a matter of having a streamlined, automated system, with samples sent elsewhere. A recent start-up called uBiome offers to characterize the microbiome of just about anything you'd like for less than $100. They aren't specific about how they got their costs so low, but I'm assuming they're just doing the usual 16S rRNA amplification and some quick next-gen sequencing. That's one way to create demand for incredibly cheap sequencing technologies.

Let's wax futurist about the potential of super-cheap, publicly-available nucleotide sequencing:

  • Breakfast cereal manufacturers can offer free microbiome sequencing in every box of Cap'n Bran Flakes to show how their product might contribute to a healthy gut.
  • Vending machines can offer genome screening on demand to screen for potential genetic maladies (but do people ever use those drugstore blood pressure screening machines? Are they secretly some kind of Scientologist apparatus?)
  • Speaking of drugstores, pharmacies could do quick screens for genetic predisposition to adverse drug reactions before they actually dispense said drugs.
  • Labs could spend money on more practical things, like this electronic ice bucket. Oh yeah.