You may have seen the headlines and the announcement this week by Illumina, manufacturer of gene sequencing equipment, that the $1000 genome is finally here. Hallelujah – jump for joy – right? Sign me up – where can I order???
Well, not so fast.
It’s a great headline – and depending on how you figure the math – it’s not entirely untrue, but it’s a real struggle to get there. Some marketing maven did some real spreadsheet magic! What is that old saying, “lies, damned lies and statistics”? Maybe that’s a little harsh, but it’s not too far off.
So, is the $1000 genome here or not? Well, kindof. It depends on how you count, and who you are. You see, it’s a math thing.
It’s kind of like a mortgage. How much did your house cost? Let’s say $100,000 – that was the price on the “for sale” sign. But by the time you get the mortgage paid off, 30 years later, the cost of that house is way more than $100,000, probably more than $250,000 and if you add in the cost of taxes, closing costs and maintenance, even more. This will only depress you, so don’t think about, especially when you sell your house for $150,000 and declare that you “made” $50,000. But I digress…
So, let’s translate this to the $1000 genome.
Dr. David Mittleman, Chief Scientific Officer for Gene by Gene, Ltd., parent company of Family Tree DNA, was at the conference this week where the Illumina announcement was made. I asked him several questions about this new technology and if it was ready for prime time yet.
His first comment shed some light on costs.
“The HiSeqX Ten system is actually a ten-pack of new HiSeq instruments, each costing 1 million dollars. So you have to spend $10 million on equipment before you can even get started.”
Ouch. I guess I won’t be buying one anytime soon!
To begin with, without the cost of the kits or processing or staff or software or installation or financing or support contracts or profit, a company would have to sell 10,000 kits at $1000 to even bring the cost of the equipment to $1000 per kit.
So, how did Illumina figure the cost of the $1000 genome? The $1000 is broken down as $800 on reagents, $135 on equipment depreciation over 4 years, and $65 on staff/overheads.
This means that to obtain that $1000 per genome price, you have to run the equipment at full capacity, 24X7, 18,000 kits per year, for 4 full years. And that still doesn’t include everything. You also need service contracts, installation, additional labor, etc. You can read more about the math and cost of ownership here.
And sure enough, when I asked David about who has purchased one so far, there are two buyers and both are institutions. This is an extremely high end product, not something for the DTC consumer marketspace.
Now this isn’t to say this announcement is a bad thing – it’s not – it’s just not exactly what the headlines suggest. It’s the $1000 genome for those with deep pockets who can purchase a $10,000,000 piece of gear and then run 18,000 samples, for 4 years, plus expenses. But yes, it does technically break down to $1000 per test as long as you hit all of those milestones and ignore the rest of the expenses. If you can afford $10 million and have the staff to run it, you probably don’t care about the cost of installation, labor and support contracts. They are just necessary incidentals – like gas for my lawn mower!
In spite of the fancy math, it’s truly amazing how far we’ve come when you consider that a single full genome sequence still cost about 3 million in 2007, and in November 2012 Gene by Gene was the first to offer full sequencing commercially and offered it to their customers for an introductory price of $5495. Of course, with no analysis tools and few testers, I can’t imagine what one would do with those results. This has changed somewhat today. The full genome with some analysis is available today to consumers for $7595, but the question of what is available that is genealogically useful to do with these results still remains, and will, until many more people test and meaningful comparisons are available.
The Illumina announcement also raises the issue of software investment to do something useful with the massive amount of data this new equipment will generate…also nontrivial, and that software does not exist yet today.
There are other issues to be addressed as well, like open access libraries. Will they exist? If so, where? Who cares for them? How are they funded? Who will have access? Will this data be made available in open access libraries, assuming they exist?
Illumina has reported that entire countries have approached them asking for their population to be sequenced, which also begs questions of privacy, security and how exactly to anonymize the samples without them becoming useless to research. This high tech watershed announcement may spur as many questions as answers, but these issues need to be resolved in the academic environment before they trickle down to the consumer marketspace.
This is not to minimize the science and technology that has propelled us to this breakthrough. It is a wonderful scientific and technological advancement because it will allow governments or large institutes to do huge population-wide studies. This is something we desperately need. Think for a minute if our Population Finder ethnicity results were based on tens of thousands of samples instead of selected hundreds.
For genetic genealogists, we are poised to benefit in the future, probably the more distant than the near future. The $1000 genome for consumers not only isn’t here, it’s not even within sniffing distance. So put your checkbooks away or better yet, buy a Big Y or a Family Finder test for a cousin, something that will benefit you in the short term.
This next step in the world of genetic discovery is exciting for research institutes, but it’s not yet ready for consumer prime time. We will be the beneficiaries, but not the direct consumers….yet…unless you want to move to one of those countries who wants their entire population sequenced. Our turn will come. Maybe the next time we see an announcement for the $1000 genome it will be calculated in normal home-owning-human terms.
If you’d like to see the product announcement and a cool video that Illumina created, take a look here. The video is short and provides a neat way to look at genetic history.