DNA sequencing’s first attempt at a personal-computer-like console is about to get a whole lot faster.
The Ion Torrent Personal Genome Machine (PGM), launched with much fanfare (and a Forbes cover
) in December, will be 100 times more powerful than it was at launch by the third quarter, according to Life Technologies, the $3 billion life sciences company that makes it.
Life Technologies’ Personal Genome Machine
That means that the PGM will be able to sequence 1 billion letters of DNA code in two hours, making it much more competitive with a rival machine, the MiSeq, developed by Illumina, which now dominates the sequencing business.
Perhaps more importantly, this leap would fulfill the promise made by Ion Torrent founder Jonathan Rothberg, who has promised that because his device relies on the same kind of semiconductor factories used to make Xboxes and iPods its performance will be able to improve 10-fold every six months. As he told me last year: “There isn’t a technology that we will not pass in a very short period of time. It doesn’t matter how far ahead they are.”
The initial Ion Torrent semiconductor chip could read out 10 million DNA letters. A newer chip for the same device could handle 100 million. The company is also pushing another measure, called read length, which is the length of DNA that the machine can read at a stretch. This will be pushed from 100 base pairs now to 400 next year, Life says. The new faster chip will cost $500 per two-hour run, the same as the previous version.
Jonathan Rothberg holding a wafer used to make the Ion Torrent PGM.
Previous DNA sequencers, like Illumina’s market-leading HiSeq, are far more powerful, churning through hundreds of billions of DNA letters at once. They are also more expensive, costing $700,000 or more. Illumina just announced that it expects customers to get 600 billion base pairs per run, pushing the cost of sequencing a human genome below $5,000. But these machines can take a week or longer to run.
The promise of the PGM was to allow researchers to get answers faster.