Ion Torrent Systems Unveils New Gene Machine, Introducing Watson to Moore’s Law

3/2/10Follow @xconomy

The world of DNA sequencing is buzzing about a startup based in Guilford, CT, and San Francisco called Ion Torrent Systems. This stealthy operation, which is advised by Harvard genomics pioneer George Church and supported by a partner in Seattle, finally pulled off the veil last weekend on a tool that uses semiconductors to generate digital readouts of DNA, in an instrument that costs one-tenth as much as competitors’.

Ion Torrent CEO Jonathan Rothberg, who founded 454 Life Sciences before selling that company to Roche for $140 million in 2007, revealed the new unorthodox approach at the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology meeting in Marco Island, FL. Rothberg gave his 30-minute talk in front of more than 500 of the world’s leading scientists who work in sequencing centers.

The company’s idea is to create an instrument that combines the insights of DNA pioneer Jim Watson with that of semiconductor visionary Gordon Moore, Rothberg said. The technology impressed and surprised a number of genomic scientists who blogged about it, including Daniel MacArthur, Keith Robison, and Luke Jostins.

“There was a lot of buzz. [Rothberg] really impressed people. They may be onto something,” says Todd Smith, the founder and chief science officer of Seattle-based Geospiza, a company that makes software for biologists to analyze genomic data, and a partner of Ion Torrent. “Then again, there are always people who are going to say, ‘Great concept, now show me the data,’”

The new technology attacks the standard mode of sequencing from a completely new angle. The existing heavyweights—Roche, Life Technologies, and Illumina—tag the individual units of DNA with light, or fluorescent, signals. 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, which has been in stealth mode since 2007, avoids the tags, lasers, and optics. Instead, it has built a proprietary ion sensor which spots hydrogen ions that have an electrical charge associated with each individual base of DNA—represented by the letters A, C, G, and T. Those ions are read as they pass through a tiny pore at the bottom of a sample well. Ion Torrent didn’t respond yesterday to a request for a follow-up interview.

The Ion Torrent machine professes to be able to perform a “run” of sequencing for as little as $500, in one hour of work. But that doesn’t mean it can … Next Page »

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