New Start Date and First Contestant for Genomics X PRIZE

Contender. Ion Torrent CEO Jonathan Rothberg hopes his company can claim the Genomics X PRIZE.

Ion Torrent

A relative newcomer to the genome sequencing world has thrown down its glove to challenge others to sequence 100 human genomes for $1000 each during a one-month period. Ion Torrent announced today that it will compete for the $10 million Archon Genomics X PRIZE, which was first set up in 2006 and was revised last October. The current rules lower the cost per sequence allowed, increase the time for sequencing, and establish that the 100 genomes analyzed would belong to people age 100 or older.

In October 2011, X PRIZE organizers had said the competition would begin in January 2013, but they got pushback from would-be contenders, who said that more time was needed to bring the technologies up to speed and to get costs in line for meeting the challenge, says X PRIZE Senior Director Grant Campany. So now the gun will go off in September 2013.

Although there were eight contenders for the X PRIZE before it was revised, Ion Torrent is the first to qualify under the new rules, says Campany. Unlike other sequencers on the market, Ion Torrent taps semiconductor technology and uses chemistry, not light, to read the DNA being analyzed. Right now, Ion Torrent is planning on using eight machines for the contest, and plans to use its newly introduced Ion Proton model for the job. According to Jonathan Rothberg, founder and CEO of Ion Torrent, the Ion Proton can sequence a human genome in about 2 hours. Already, Rothberg says they've done 30 centenarian genomes as a pilot project.

Over the next year, the company plans to use data from human genomes sequenced with its new machines to develop the statistics needed to evaluate how accurate the data are. "What has to happen is tuning of the software and the perfecting of the technology to be able to make a clinical grade genome. We want to be in a position to do genomes to [the best] accuracy," says Rothberg.

The minimum standard for the X PRIZE is one error in 100,000 bases, but the goal is one error in 1 million bases. The genomes must be 95% complete, but preferably 98% complete and with genes assignable to each parent's chromosomes, says Campany.

Other contenders have until May 2013 to sign up, but "a lot of companies are not focusing on whole genome sequencing," says Campany. Yet already some potential players are opting out. That includes Roche's 454 Life Sciences, says Campany, which had signed on originally. Life Technologies Corporation, which owns Ion Torrent but has other lines of sequencers, is putting its bet on Ion Torrent, says Rothberg. Also, Illumina says it will not compete.Complete Genomics says it will decide closer to the May deadline, but it is on shaky ground right now. "We need to have at least two competitors," says Campany, who is hopeful Ion Torrent's move will inspire others, perhaps even large sequencing centers such as BGI, to step up to the plate.