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Pace of change overtakes the XPRIZE


Genome sequencing advances make award redundant before it’s announced.


So swiftly are the genome jocks driving down the time and expense of reading DNA that they have done the unthinkable. They’ve caused a $10 million XPRIZE to be cancelled. The prize was simply “outpaced by innovation”, says XPRIZE Chair and CEO Peter Diamandis.

The non-profit XPRIZE foundation was set up to incentivise technological revolutions. There has been an XPRIZE to kick-start space tourism, claimed by SpaceShipOne in 2004, and an automotive XPRIZE for greener cars that team Edison 2 won in 2010 for the first four-passenger car that could better 2.4 litres per 100 km (100 miles per gallon).

In 2006 the foundation announced a $10 million XPRIZE for the first team that could sequence 100 human genomes with high accuracy at a cost of $10,000 per genome, and do so within 10 days. At the time it was a daunting goal as the task then cost $1 million and took months.

But by 2011, with the cost plummeting, the foundation shifted the goalposts. Now to win, 100 genomes would have to be read at a cost of $1,000 each. The accuracy had to be “medical grade”, tolerating an error of only one in a million letters. And “to benefit humanity” it would be done on 100 centenarians, so that the world might study the secrets of their longevity.

The foundation cut the contestants a little slack, allowing them 30 days instead of 10 to achieve it.

The competition was meant to start this September and there were two entrants: a Californian company called Ion Torrent and a team led by George Church at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, Boston. But on 22 August Diamandis announced that the prize was cancelled.

“Genome sequencing technology is plummeting in cost and increasing in speed independent of our competition,” he explained.

It was clear the XPRIZE had been outpaced. What sort of contest could there be when many companies are already offering to read your genome in a few days for less than $5000?

But not everyone is celebrating. Craig Venter, who led one of the first two teams to read a human genome, points out that costs may have tumbled, but there has been much less focus on improving accuracy. No one yet offers the medical-grade genome read that the prize was intended to encourage.

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Elizabeth Finkel is editor-in-chief of Cosmos.
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