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Venter introduces X Prize to sequence centenarians' DNA

Craig Venter helps launch the Archon Genomics X Prize, which will award $10 million to the first team to sequence the genomes of 100 centenarians to a level of accuracy never before achieved and at relatively low cost.

What does it take to make it to 100 years old? The Archon Genomics X Prize hopes to find out.

As I've researched "extreme" aging in recent years--that is, the genes and lifestyles of centenarians (100 and older) and supercentenarians (110 and older)--a common refrain I hear from my younger peers is, "I don't want to get that old. It sounds miserable."

Whether or not that's true is something most of us will never find out. The reality is that those who make it past 100 are an exceedingly rare breed of people (1 in 4,000) who've hit a jackpot of sorts: good genes, good diets, and a lack of common age-related diseases. In fact, many of the oldest humans are active and independent up until the end, and they tend to die quickly and relatively peacefully.

So what, exactly, are these "good genes"?

The Archon Genomics X Prize, announced today, aims to begin unraveling this age-old mystery by awarding a $10 million prize to the first team to sequence 100 whole human genomes to a level of accuracy never before achieved, and at $5,000 or less a genome.

What's more, the 100 people volunteering their DNA are all over the age of 100. (The selection process is still under way, and candidates can be nominated online.)

"It's a club I'm hoping to join one day," said Craig Venter, the American biologist and entrepreneur who, having been the first to sequence a six-billion-letter human genome (his own) in 2007, is originating this contest.

Venter tells me he now knows he's at increased risk for developing both Alzheimer's and heart disease. But his mother is alive and "smart as ever" at 88, not to mention a cancer survivor.

"We want to know what the other gene sets are--not the ones associated with disease," Venter says. "The cliche is that people look under their lamp posts for lost keys, because that's where they can see, but now we have the tools to see everywhere else. So 100 is sort of the down payment to get it started."

And it is just a start. Venter estimates that we'll need closer to 10,000 genomes to reliably discern genetic patterns that are linked to not only disease but also wellness. The cost of sequencing has come down dramatically. Venter estimates that it cost $70 million to sequence his, it's been reported that Steve Jobs sequenced his for $100,000, and genomes today are being sequenced for as little as $4,000. However, the accuracy must be improved to what is being called "medical grade" sequencing.

"What we're doing with this announcement and [tighter] standards is making it clear that the tech has to get in this highly accurate range that it's not quite in yet," Venter said. "This contest will be truth serum for the field. The data will be publicly available and certainly made available to the individuals."

As for whether the centenarian cohort volunteering for the prize might find certain results upsetting, Venter said, "My view [is] if you're alive and well at 100, there's no such thing as bad news. The bad news for some of them is they could live another 10 or 20 years, whether they want to or not."