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Jonathan Rothberg, head of Ion Torrent, speaking at EmTech 2011

The mythical “$1,000 genome” is almost upon us, said Jonathan Rothberg, CEO of sequencing technology company Ion Torrent, at MIT’s Emerging Technology conference. If his prediction comes true, it will represent an astonishing triumph in rapid technological development. The rate at which genome sequencing has become more affordable is faster than Moore’s law. (You can read a Q&A TR did with Rothberg earlier this year here, and a profile of his company here).

“By this time next year sequencing human genomes as fast and cheap as bacterial genome,” said Rothberg. (Earlier, he’d commented that his company can now do an entire bacterial genome in about two hours.)

I was in the room on October 19 when he said it, and I would have thought it pure hubris were it not for Rothberg’s incredible track record in this area, from founding successful previous-generation sequencing company 454 Life Sciences to recent breakthroughs made with the same technology he proposes will get us to the $1,000 genome.

This technology, called, called the Personal Genome Machine, is already being used to determine which mutations are present in the genomes of patients’ cancers.

The Personal Genome Maker is already showing up in clinical labs, even doctors’ offices

The key to this breakthrough, says Rothberg, is that the PGM does not rely on conventional wet chemistry to sequence DNA. Instead, it works almost entirely through conventional microchip technology, which means Ion Torrent is leveraging decades of investment in conventional transistors and chips.

So what’s the age of the $1,000 genome look like? Until we know what more of those genes actually correlate with, for most of us it won’t be so different from the present.

“Right now don’t have very many correlations between those 3 billion base pairs [of the human genome] and outcomes or medicines,” says Rothberg. He predicts it will take at least 10 years of clinical experiments with full genome sequencing to get us to the point where we can begin to unlock its value.

“And it will be 20 years before we understand cancer at same level as HIV and can come up with combinations of medicine [tailored] for each individual,” says Rothberg.

You can watch a full video of his talk on Tech Review’s EmTech site.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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