Life Technologies Debuts Ion Torrent Machine, Next Big Bet on Fast, Cheap Sequencing

12/14/10Follow @xconomy

Life Technologies turned heads four months ago with a bold acquisition of one of the hot startups in the field of faster/cheaper gene sequencing, and now it says the new product is ready for prime time.

The Carlsbad, CA-based company (NASDAQ: LIFE) said today it has started selling what it calls the Ion Personal Genome Machine, the first commercial sequencing machine based on semiconductor technology. The instrument is being shipped to “select sites in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific,” the company says. As promised, the machine’s sticker price is $49,500, about one-tenth the price of today’s most powerful gene sequencing tools.

This new instrument could play a big role in the incredible innovation story that has emerged the past few years in faster/cheaper gene sequencing. While the first human genome took more than a decade and $3 billion to decode, entire human genomes can now be done in a matter of days and for about $10,000. Ion Torrent Systems, a Guilford, CT, and South San Francisco company that Life Tech acquired in August, sought to push those boundaries even further. Founder Jonathan Rothberg unveiled a prototype machine this spring that is meant to fuse the principles taught by DNA pioneer James Watson with those of computing legend Gordon Moore. By using semiconductor technology to read the individual chemical units of DNA, instead of using traditional fluorescent tags and cameras, Ion Torrent created a desktop sequencing machine that was said to cost about one-tenth the cost of existing instruments—and could perform a single sequencing “run” for about $500 in a couple hours.

While the machine might not be ideal for complete genome sequencing, it could be used for numerous cheap and easy genome experiments that don’t require scientists to get the entire 3 billion letter sequence of A, C, G, and T in every human. The idea stirred up so much buzz that Life Tech pounced in August, agreeing to buy Ion Torrent for $375 million in upfront cash and stock, plus another $350 million if the Ion machine achieved certain technical milestones through 2012.

Rothberg had this to say about what it means in a company statement.

Jonathan Rothberg

Jonathan Rothberg

“Point-and-shoot digital cameras opened up photography to everyone because they were fast, cheap and easy—and people saw the results immediately, so they quickly became better photographers. That’s what Ion is doing for DNA sequencing. The Ion PGM sequencer gives you results in two hours, and it’s affordable and easy to use, so researchers can make decisions in a timely way and can get to publication quicker.”

Life Tech is clearly revving up the marketing engine to make this thing take off. The company is setting up a competition, with seven individual $1 million prizes, called the “Life Grand Challenges Contest.” Three of the competitions are based on the Ion machine; entrants must produce twice as much sequence data, do it twice as fast, and do it with twice the accuracy when compared to the best internal Ion Torrent record at the time of submission. Four more challenges, to be announced in 2011, will be based on other instruments marketed by Life Technologies.

Life Tech’s new machine is clearly a device that will be watched closely by all the major competitors in the field—San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), Switzerland-based Roche, Menlo Park, CA-based Pacific Biosciences (NASDAQ: PACB), and Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics (NASDAQ: GNOM). And, of course, journalists like me will be asking a lot of questions about what new avenues of science can get opened up when sequencing entire genomes becomes so fast and so cheap that it becomes a part of everyday biological research. This is one of the big stories I will personally be watching in 2011, and writing about regularly in these pages.

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  • Jordan

    Very interesting article. It is exciting to see the rate of genome sequencing finally showing signs of acceleration. While interpretation and analysis of a full genome used to take companies like Knome (http://www.knome.com) up to 6 months to complete, it’s now being done in a matter of days, thanks to a tremendous amount of effort and software automation. The challenge has also been to speed up the sequencing period. In 2011, the acceleration of the sequencing process will hopefully become more closely aligned with the acceleration of analysis and interpretation.

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