A 95-foot sailboat named the Sorcerer II will set sail today from San Diego’s Shelter Island Marina on what its owner, the J. Craig Venter Institute, bills as “a global ocean sampling voyage of genomic discovery.”
Yesterday afternoon, the irrepressible Venter himself was barefoot as he hosted a dockside bon voyage party while an enormous white flag emblazoned with a blue insignia of discovery flapped lazily in the boat’s rigging overhead. His guests included SAIC founder J. Robert Beyster, whose family foundation is helping to fund the two-year journey, and Greg Lucier, the chairman and CEO of Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies, which also is providing funding.
The journey represents the continuation of a cruise that Venter began in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda in 2003 as a pilot project to analyze the genes of marine organisms the boat collected. Since then, the sailboat, named after the “source-er” of the human genome (get it?), has become the centerpiece in a global expedition of expanding scope and ambition. Summing up the feelings of many well-wishers, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders told the group, “I guess every one of us wishes we could sign up and go on a big adventure.”
Beyond the romance of sailing on a scientific expedition inspired by Charles Darwin, however, the technology that Venter is using to sequence new genes is undergoing a revolution.
Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) is now developing a next-generation sequencing technique called “single molecule sequencing,” and CEO Lucier told me Venter has joined the effort as a “technology partner.”
Life Technologies, which was formed in November’s merger of Carlsbad-based Invitrogen and Applied Biosystems of Foster City, CA, is already regarded as a leader in DNA sequencing. Before the merger, Applied was best known for supplying genetic analysis machines to the Human Genome Project, a public science consortium formed to map the chain of thousands of genes in human DNA. The Carlsbad, CA-based company says its existing SOLiD instrument is expected to bring the cost of sequencing a human genome down to about $10,000 this year.
The next generation technology represents the potential to bring the cost down a lot lower than that. Without going into much detail, Lucier says single molecule sequencing offers the possibility of decoding a genome in “a very high-speed fashion by rapidly unzipping the DNA.” He says Venter and the J. Craig Venter Institute will test the new technique on samples collected during the Sorcerer II’s voyage, and that “we’ll work with them to commercialize the technology.”
Life is not alone in developing such technology. Cambridge, MA-based Helicos BioSciences says it’s also developing a single molecule sequencing system. And as Luke reported in October, Complete Genomics of Mountain View, CA, hopes to bring the cost of sequencing a genome down to $5,000 by providing a service-based approach instead of selling the machines.
What is particular significant, according to Lucier and others, is that the technology needed to sequence genes is rapidly advancing across a broad front, undergoing a kind of biotech version of Moore’s Law. The processing speed for gene sequencing is plummeting and “prices are coming down by orders of magnitude,” says Eric Mathur of Synthetic Genomics, a San Diego biofuels startup that Venter co-founded in 2005.
Mathur also was at the dockside party yesterday, along with microbiologist and Nobel laureate Hamilton O. Smith, a Synthetic Genomics co-founder who also serves with Venter as the company’s co-chief scientific officer.
Lucier says the effort at Life Technologies “is probably one of the most ambitious science projects we’ve ever undertaken.” Still, even with Venter’s help, the Carlsbad maker of laboratory tools and materials is now in a long-term race to advance gene-sequencing technology.
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