The cost of a personal genome has dropped from about the price of a luxury sedan to, well, the price of a slightly less luxurious nice car. Illumina, a genomics technology company headquartered in San Diego, announced the launch of a $48,000 genome-sequencing service at the Consumer Genetics Conference in Boston on Wednesday.
It won’t be the first consumer genome service–Knome, a startup in Cambridge, MA, already offers genome sequencing for just under $100,000–but Illumina is the first company preparing to offer high-volume personal-genome sequencing. Knome, which uses Illumina technology to perform its sequencing, is a boutique service that offers both genome analysis and interpretation.
Many within the genomics industry believe that, as soon as the price is right, an individual’s genome will be sequenced routinely and become part of her medical record. Within the genome lie clues to each person’s risk for disease, his or her reaction to different medications, and other medically useful information.
In an important step towards creating synthetic life forms, genetics pioneer George Church has produced a man-made version of the part of the cell that turns out proteins, which carry out the business of life. “If you going to make synthetic life that is anything like current life … you have got to have this … biological machine,” Church told reporters in a telephone briefing. And it can have important industrial uses, especially for manufacturing drugs and proteins not found in nature [Reuters].
Church’s team built a functional ribosome from scratch, molecule by molecule. Ribosomes are molecular machines that read strands of RNA and translate the genetic code into proteins. They are exquisitely complex, and previous attempts to reconstitute a ribosome from its constituent parts – dozens of proteins along with several molecules of RNA – yielded poorly functional ribosomes, and even then succeeded only when researchers resorted to “strange conditions” that did not recapitulate the environment of a living cell, Church said [Nature blog]. Next, the researchers want to produce man-made ribosomes that can replicate themselves.
Church’s work hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal; instead he presented his preliminary results at a seminar of Harvard alumni over the weekend. He described how his research team first disassembled ribosomes from E. coli, a common lab bacterium, into its component molecules. They then used enzymes to put the various RNA and protein components back together. When put together in a test tube, these components spontaneously formed into functional ribosomes…. The researchers used the artificial ribosome to successfully produce the luciferase enzyme, a firefly protein that generates the bug’s glow [Technology Review].
Independent geneticist J. Craig Venter raced an international consortium of scientists to map the human genome in the 1990s. Now he’s putting the same cutting-edge science to work on today’s energy crisis, engineering a whole new generation of biofuels. In a rare in-depth interview, we talked to Venter recently about his latest project to save the world, as well as historical flubs, today’s presidential candidates and the future of genetics. —Chris Ladd
So how did you get from mapping the human genome to creating biofuels?
We considered the biggest issues facing society that we thought we could impact. What’s happening to the environment and getting weaned off oil and coal are the biggest issues out there.
Is it similar to the genome project? More daunting?
Nobody thought that such a massive project as sequencing the human genome could be undertaken by a single team, like we did. But that challenge is minor compared to trying to replace the 30 billion barrels of oil that we use globally each year, and the 3 billion tons of coal. The scale of that is beyond my imagination.
I think the real challenge won’t necessarily come from biology, because biology is infinitely scalable, but from engineering. [If we can overcome that,] we have the potential to stop using oil and coal hopefully within the next 10 to 20 years, and even start reducing the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
Craig Venter is a talented guy. I expect to hear more about him in the future.
Gene glitches may hold secret of a long life
A series of rare genetic mutations that boost human lifespan have been discovered by a team of scientists studying centenarians and their elderly children.
The genetic glitches are thought to interfere with the normal growth of cells, halting the ageing process.
The discovery mirrors similar findings from studies on animals, which have shown that certain variations of genes linked to an insulin-like growth hormone can extend animals’ lives dramatically.
Dr Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Ageing Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, found a series of mutations exclusively among centenarians which affect sensitivity to “insulin growth factor 1”, or IGF-1. This hormone influences the development of almost every cell in the body. It is crucial for children’s growth and continues contributing to tissue generation throughout adulthood.
Barzilai’s team discovered the genetic markers after scanning the genetic codes of 384 participants whose ages ranged from 95 to 110, with an average age of 100. They were compared with 312 controls, who came from families with a typical life span, none of whom had lived to 95.