Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Sequencers: Genomics X PRIZE Takes On a New Look

Human DNA isolates.

National Institutes of Health

The rules for a $10 million prize for leaps in genome sequencing just got a little easier—and a little harder. The Archon Genomics X PRIZE presented by MEDCO was established in 2006 by the X PRIZE Foundation in Playa Vista, California, to encourage the rapid development of cheap, accurate human genome sequencing for medical purposes. At the time, the goal was to decipher 100 human genomes in 10 days for an all-inclusive cost of less than $10,000 a piece. Although eight organizations eventually signed on for the challenge, none actually tried to do the sequencing.

Since then, sequencing costs have plummeted, putting human genomes in the $10,000 range. But meeting the 10 days limit remained an impossible deadline. And the foundation and the sequencing community never really worked out how to judge the prize. As a result, they've decided to start over.

Today, in Nature Genetics and at a New York City press briefing, Larry Kedes and Grant Campany from the X PRIZE Foundation laid out the revised challenge, which includes a less tight deadline and other changes.

Under the new rules, starting 3 January 2013, the gun will go off on a race to sequence the genomes of 100 centenarians who are being identified by the foundation. The deadline will be 3 February, not 13 January, but winning the full prize will require that each genome cost no more than $1000. Entries will also have to meet stringent requirements for accuracy, 1 error per million bases, and completeness, 98%.

"I think [that price] is possible to achieve," says Granger Sutton, a computational biologist at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland. "But also hitting all the other standards will be very challenging."

If no one succeeds, the judges will award lesser prizes in different categories as long as entries meet certain minimum standards. If more than one group satisfies the grand-prize requirements, then the winner will be whoever finishes first.

The goal is to show that it is possible to accurately sequence human genomes inexpensively, with the hope that collecting such data will eventually become routine in the clinic. By choosing healthy people over 100 and making that data available to scientists, the organizers also hope the contest will lead to new insights into longevity and healthy aging, says Kedes.

The organizers and their advisers have also spent the past 2 years coming up with a cost-effective way of judging the sequenced genomes, inviting input from the community. They will not be comparing the submitted genomes to one another; instead by the time the contest happens, they will have already sequenced parts of 25 of the genomes with multiple technologies, using a variety of techniques to make sure each base in that set is correct. They will then compare submissions to those corrected sequences. Auditors will also go over the costs to make sure every penny has been accounted for, says Kedes. But he is still working with sequencers to come up with the final rules.

The foundation will be contacting the eight original entrants, but Kedes predicts that some will drop out, because they are companies that once focused on DNA sequencing but today have shifted priorities. Other organizations that originally said they weren't interested, such as Illumina Inc., might now be strong contenders, says Sutton. Given how soon the contest will be held, "the ones most likely to compete are those who can tweak what [technology] they have," Sutton points out. Then again, "you can never be sure what's out there."