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Sequencing Seattle: An Idea for the Future of the Northwest

Let me make a modest proposal:  Seattle should commit to sequencing and interpreting the genomes of every willing member of its population and should do it within the next five years.  This program would elevate Seattle to the forefront of personalized genomic medicine, leverage many advantages unique to our area, and create a vibrant and sustainable economic engine that will drive our region for decades.


I can hear the howls of protest now, especially from the halls of the City Council and the mayor’s office. Seattle faces a lot of challenges.  Like most cities, Seattle is staring at revenue shortfalls, relatively flat growth projections, and a host of problems in environment, public health, education, social services, and infrastructure.  These are all pressing, immediate needs.

But at the same time, focusing too narrowly on the short term and not investing in infrastructure leaves a city’s continued relevance and growth at risk.  And while the planned waterfront tunnel is an example of a commitment to physical infrastructure, I’m talking about a similar commitment to infrastructure that supports, enhances and grows human capital, which I think will be at least as important for Seattle’s future.  Committing to genome sequencing is that kind of infrastructure, and when combined with the business, research and health synergies that would come out of such a commitment, this path makes a lot of sense.

Next generation DNA sequencing is a paradigm shifting technology.  It’s analogous to how the creation of the integrated circuit in 1958 led to the personal computer revolution via exponential growth in processing power.  Biomedical research today is undergoing radical change due to Next-generation sequencing platforms that started with Roche’s 454 in 2005 and continue today with platforms like Illumina’s HiSeq, Life Technologies’ IonProton, and others.

Over the past five years the cost of DNA sequencing has dropped at a rate that betters Moore’s law. The original human genome draft sequence cost ~$2.8 billion dollars and was announced in 2001 after a decade of work. Today, a human genome sequence can be had for about $5,000 and will arrive in as few as a couple of weeks. Most experts in the field expect the cost of a genome sequence will drop below $1,000 in the next 3-5 years, and there’s no reason for the drop in cost to end there.  The $100 genome will happen.

By committing to sequencing everyone, Seattle will realize several key benefits.  On an immediate level, a large part of the cost can go right back into our community.  I’ll admit, $100 per genome, is a bit disingenuous.  The real cost … Next Page »

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  • Me

    I think it’s an excellent idea. A few caveats, though, and one warning. One of the caveats is that many of the benefits of sequencing a large population will be reaped by the world as a whole, and not particularly by the Seatlleites (is that the word? Are children there ‘microseattleites’ – I digress). This is of course no bad thing and will boost Seattle’s profile, but beware of assuming a tight linkage between local outlay and local returns in a project like this. In particular, the sequencing (and analysis) will only be a small part of the outlay if an aim is to feed back into healthcare for the local community.

    Another caveat, at least from the perspective of improving the understanding of genome/phenome links, is that the best data won’t necessarily come from sequencing one community. On the other hand, the idea of “sequencing Seattle” is an attractive and accessible one, far more so than (say) phenotype-targetted national or international programs.

    Finally, a warning would be that each new round of technology has its day and its big projects, only to be superseded when the next technology comes along. Few people can now remember much about the big SNP surveys, for example, which were going to give us rich data and answer all questions. And where are all those CEPH families now? The same will happen with whole genome sequencing – it will be superseded by massively parallel surveys that include methylation or chromatin patterning in respect to gene expression; or it will be realized that the most stubborn genome-based problems are accessible only in the context of somatic variation; or something will come along that we haven’t yet dreamt of.

    But, as a rallying cry, “sequence Seattle” isn’t a bad starting point.

  • LJStewartTweet

    Great Idea. Seattle has the big data crunchers and sharing mentality to make this a reality. And also people could donate their brain’s to research in case of death too.

  • Kyle Serikawa

    Those are excellent caveats, and its true there’s no guarantee that most or even a majority of benefits would accrue specifically to Seattle. As I think about this, however, I

  • Kyle Serikawa

    (whoops, clicked too soon) hope the benefit would come from building an integrated public/private partnership that would allow everyone to make progress faster and better, which would provide a long term business and social benefit advantage to Seattle. Application builders would interact closely with both producers and users of the genetic information to create more efficiently. I’d also hope that as new technologies arise, people will keep up with them, and if we can continue to attract good people to our area, that probability goes up. When we talk about the key attributes of knowledge workers in the 21st century, I think the most important one will be adaptability.