How to Sequence 100 People’s Genomes in 10 Days

Stewart Blusson, a geologist and venture capitalist, is funding a contest that requires teams to sequence 100 different human genomes in 10 days or less, and offers a prize of ten million dollars to the winner. While now sequencing technology is way too primitive for this to be feasible at less than astronomic cost, there’s a promising development that may make the contest winnable at a cost lower than the prize.

PZ is unimpressed with the contest, and for a good reason. In terms of biological knowledge, sequencing 100 different specimens of a not particularly important species is worthless. It’s a lot more useful to sequence many different species of bacteria and viruses, as well as a variety of protists, animals, plants, and funguses.

While the contest goes in the right direction in saying that the list of donors will be fixed, and some advocacy groups for genetic diseases will be able to pick one donor who will have the disease, it’s not the best thing for public health. A contest oriented toward public health would either focus on individuals with genetic diseases, and in particular on the problematic genes, or go the other route and ask teams to sequence widespread pathogens. It will save a lot more lives to sequence many strands of H5N1 than to sequence many humans.

So this contest isn’t optimal from a public health point of view or from a pure science point of view. It is, however, a very bold and superficially useful thing, which is probably why Blusson decided to go with it. There are plenty of advances that are useful only for some people’s sense of pride: the Moon landing, Bush’s noises about a manned mission to Mars, discovering more digits of pi, and now this contest.

A while ago, PZ and I made some points about governmental versus privately-funded scientific research. PZ wrote about the problems of privatized scientific research, while I wrote about the moral and political issues surrounding public research. A government flush with science funding will give money to every team that is willing and able to tackle a difficult problem with significance for either pure discovery or public health. The free market, on the other hand, gives money in big chunks instead of properly spreading it out, and does so for glamorous rather than interesting or useful projects.

2 Responses to How to Sequence 100 People’s Genomes in 10 Days

  1. SLC says:

    Privately funded research by private companies generally is focussed on developing profit centers for the companies doing the funding. On the other hand, I suspect that Bill Gates is not particularly interested in another profit center for Microsoft but for sharing the credit for scientific advances. In either case, private funding generally doesn’t support basic research which might not pay off for decades, if ever. For instance, Einsteins’ 1905 paper on stimulated emission didn’t pay off until the invention of the maser and laser in the 1950s’ and 1960s’. Only governments can afford to take the long view, knowing that most basic research projects will not lead to practical advances.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    It’s not just science – it’s everything. The free market is phenomenal at developing things that will pay off in the next five years. Beyond that, you need governmental direction, or else you’ll see this sort of spectacular but mostly useless research. If railroads in France and Japan had been private, the TGV and the Shinkansen would’ve never been developed.

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