Life Tech, In Competitive Frenzy for Cheap DNA Sequencing, Buys Ion Torrent for $375M

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CuraGen, and 454 Life Sciences, a company that was sold to Roche in 2007 for $140 million in cash.

What’s really different about Ion Torrent is that it goes about sequencing an entirely different way than conventional systems have used. As I put it in the March headline, it introduces Watson & Crick to Moore’s Law.

The existing sequencing players-Roche, Life Technologies, and Illumina-tag the individual units of DNA with light, or fluorescent, signals, as I described in the March story. And they use sophisticated lasers and cameras to read the flow of those tags. The tags add some cost, and the cameras make for expensive capital equipment that can run around $500,000, plus the chemicals to keep them running.

Ion Torrent found a way to avoid the tags, lasers, and optics. It uses a proprietary ion sensor which spots hydrogen ions that have an electrical charge associated with each individual base of DNA-represented by the individual letters A, C, G, and T. Those ions are read as they pass through a tiny pore at the bottom of a sample well.

Illumina has sought its own entry point into ion scanning, through an equity investment and partnership with U.K-based Oxford Nanopore Technologies. And both Complete Genomics and Pacific Biosciences are looking to load up with more capital through IPOs they hope to complete. It will be a fascinating battle to watch over the coming years, whether the existing heavyweights can maintain their edge, or whether the hungry upstarts can take over the field of faster, cheaper gene sequencing that’s coming to biomedical research.

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