How much would you pay to see your future?

Three years after the human genome was sequenced at a price tag of $3 billion, Complete Genomics does it for just $4,400 in material cost.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read

My dad used to say technology is advancing so quickly that, by the time a product reaches market, it is already obsolete. Moreover, if you wait just a little longer, you can pay a lot less. The sequencing of the human genome takes the advancement of technology, and its fast reduction in cost, to an entirely new level.

Whole-genome sequencing could be affordable and accurate enough to perform on every newborn with a simple heel-prick blood test in a matter of years. Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

The Human Genome Project, which officially completed the mind-boggling achievement of sequencing Jim Watson's genome in 2006, carried the equally mind-boggling price tag of $3 billion. If I may be so bold as to use that word thrice in one paragraph, even more mind-boggling is that a company called Complete Genomics has just sequenced three human genomes for $4,400 in materials, with an error rate of less than one base in 100,000.

DNA sequencing technology, which could help us detect genetic predispositions to illnesses, customize treatments accordingly, lead to the development of new energy sources, etc., is currently being used to either do long reads of hundreds of bases on genomes that have yet to be sequenced (see the news this week on the full sequencing of the domestic horse genome), or shorter reads that only align with a genome we have already sequenced (ours, for example).

In a paper published in the journal Science on Thursday, Complete Genomics shares the methods it used, which John Timmer at Ars Technica describes as "clever variants of well known molecular biology techniques to read massive amounts of DNA fragments that are, in total, about 65 bases long."

Moreover, Complete Genomics used more common--read more affordable--materials. For a detailed explanation of how this was done, check out the paper in Science, or Timmer's illustrated translation for Ars Technica.

Complete Genomics is not the lone warrior in this field. As CNET's Stephen Shankland reported in October, IBM Research has jumped into the game, and hopes to reduce the cost of genetic testing to as little as $100 per person. And then there's genomic technology manufacturer Illumina, and 454 Life Sciences. The list grows.

At this rate of advancement, it has been widely reported that the technology for whole-genome sequencing could be affordable and accurate enough to perform on every newborn with a simple heel-prick blood test in a matter of years. This makes a lot of people uneasy for several reasons, not the least of which is privacy.

"Bad things can be done with the genome," Dr. Jay Flatley of Illumina tells Times Online. "It could predict something about someone--and you could potentially hand information to their employer or their insurance company. People have to recognize that this horse is out of the barn, and that your genome probably can't be protected, because everywhere you go you leave your genome behind."

I have to wonder which is more unnerving to most people--that others will be able to access our genomic fingerprints, or that our bodies are able to be so accurately read at all. The secrets currently locked within us carry a certain mystique, and once unlocked could be put to uses that are possibly beyond our control. Whether this makes the human body more or less magical is debatable, but this much is not: The horse is out of the barn.