Four years ago, the Human Genome Project successfully sequenced the three billion base pairs that make up human dna. Shortly after that, Dr. Jonathon Rothberg began to think of ways the human genome could be sequenced for individual people. His company, 454 Life Sciences, has now successfully sequenced the genome of Dr. James Watson.
"The old technology used large numbers of people, bacteria and robots. And the new technology used chips just like modern computers use chips to sequence hundreds of thousands of sequences at once or hundreds of millions of bases at once, dropping the cost over a thousand-fold and the time accordingly."
In fact, it took just two months to sequence Dr. Watson's DNA, and cost $2 million. That's still a staggering amount that practically prevents widespread genome sequencing. But Dr. Watson, who is considered a pioneer of DNA research, says he forsees a time when genome sequencing is a normal routine which will help explain the mysteries of disease and illness.
"I think we'll have a more -- a healthier and more compassionate world 50 years from now due to the great technological advances we're celebrating here today."
While this technology is new and expensive, there is a global race to make personalized genome sequencing available to the average person. Rothberg says the science is already advanced to the point that within five years they could get the cost down to a price nearly anyone could afford.
"I am quite confident that we'll see in the next few years, not only the $100,000 genome, but the $10,000 genome. And in the same way you saw your computers at Wal-Mart for less than a thousand and people going in and getting personal MRI scan, you'll see a $1,000 genome. Once you do something in the miniature, there's no stopping it."
If genome sequencing becomes available to the general public, a host of ethical questions are raised. Dr. Amy McGuire is an assistant professor at Baylor's Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy. She says scientists and perhaps the federal government will have to develop safeguards against genetic discrimination.
"Certainly there's anecdotal evidence of people having personal experience with -- or at least perceived genetic discrimination in insurance and employment. I think the real concern is studies have shown that there is really a high level of public fear about discrimination, whether or not it actually exists or the extent to which it exists."
Dr. Watson agreed to have his personal genome sequenced and also requested it be made public through journal publication and the web. Dr. Watson's genome was sequenced at the 454 labs in Connecticut. Researchers at Baylor's Human Genome Sequencing Center then idependently verified and authenticated the findings. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.