ZS Genetics Enters Race for Genomics X Prize

A gang of outsiders just arrived in town. Yesterday, at a conference in San Diego, ZS Genetics announced that it is the seventh team to be accepted into the race for the $10 million Archon X Prize for Genomics.

“We have been thinking about this for a while and started talking to the X Prize people maybe three weeks ago,” said ZS Genetics founder and CEO William Glover, when Xconomy interviewed him just before the announcement.

Glover worked as a business consultant and designed radiation safety systems for nuclear power plants before founding ZS Genetics in 2003. The other members of the company’s management team are also outsiders to the biotech industry, with careers in semiconductor manufacturing, telecommunications, and other industries. The North Reading, MA, company’s technology is also strikingly different from the methods used by other entrants.

“We read the sequence by simply taking a picture,” says Glover. The camera in this case is an old workhorse of biological research, a transmission electron microscope. Even though today’s versions of these instruments are capable of capturing very fine details, the components of normal DNA are not directly visible with electron microscopy, due to low contrast and shadowing.

To make the individual letters of the genetic code stand out, ZS Genetics first makes a copy of the DNA, using elements like iodine and boron as labels. The DNA is then stretched out flat on a glass plate, to get rid of shadowing.

The technology is capable of reading sequences of 8000 to 10000 letters of genetic code at a time—far more than competing so called “next generation sequencing” technologies that instead read an enormous number of very short sequences in parallel, and then piece them together afterwards with the help of a massive amount of computing. (One example of such an approach is the technology developed by Helicos BioSciences.)

This difference is what will give ZS Genetics the upper hand in the genomics X Prize competition, Glover says. To win the prize, teams must sequence a hundred human genomes within ten days or at a cost less than $10,000 per genome “We can do this at an extremely low cost. We get very long read lengths, that simplifies the assembly of the DNA sequences enormously, so we can get rid of most of the bioinformatics cost.” Two other New England entrants to the competition, however, are betting on technologies that employ much shorter read lengths: Branford, CT’s 454 Life Sciences, a subsidiary of Roche, and the Personal Genome X-Team (PGx), led by Harvard Medical School’s George Church.

Whether it wins the X Prize or not, ZS Genetics’ team is hoping its approach to faster sequencing will quickly translate into revenue for the startup. “The technology isn’t mature enough today, but we are confident that it will be. We’ll have a showroom and do demos in the third quarter of this year and, plan start commercial sales in early 2009.”

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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