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Archon Genomics X-Prize

It’s a contest for us all, with $10 million going to the contest winners… and heaps of information that could help people live longer as the real prize for everyone. Oh, and maybe a less expensive whole genome DNA test for the genetic genealogists to play with too…

It’s the Archon Genomics X-Prize Competition, a race among teams of scientists to try unlock the genetic clues to living to the age of 100, and it may usher in a new age of inexpensive genetic testing.

The goal is to see if there is something hidden in the genes of healthy people who live to be 100 years old and more that protects them from the diseases so common as we age: heart disease; diabetes; cancer and the like. If those kinds of genetic markers can be found, scientists may be able to use the information to look not just for new medical treatments but for ways to prolong our lives — and our quality of life.

But the teams entered in the competition — which will take place in 2013 — don’t just have to look at the genetic makeup of these centenarians: they will have to fully sequence the genomes of 100 centenarians in 30 days or less for a cost of no more than $1,000 per genome.

What does that mean? Each team must accurately and thoroughly read every single solitary marker in all of the DNA of the 100 chosen candidates. That means determining the exact order of the three billion bases that make up the DNA within the 23 chromosomes in each human cell.

Times 100 people.

In less than 30 days.

For less than $1,000 per person tested.

And just how big of an achievement would that be? Let’s put it into context. The Human Genome Project, an international effort to extract and sequence an entire human genome from a single individual began in 1990. It wasn’t completed until 2003. And it probably cost, all told, somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.8 billion.

And that $1,000-per-genome price point is widely regarded as the make-or-break point for opening up whole genomic sequencing for all kinds of purposes — medical, yes; research, for sure; … and maybe even genealogical purposes.

We already pay upwards of $200-300 to extract some genetic information of genealogical value — if we could have it all for $1,000? I suspect we’d have some takers. I’d be there, in a heartbeat, after saving up my nickels.

That — and the fact that I wouldn’t mind staying healthy to age 100 — is why I’m sure going to be cheering the Archon Genomics X Prize competitors on.

There are two teams entered in competition so far, and teams can enter until May of 2013. The teams now in the running are a team from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and a team from Ion Torrent Systems, Inc., of Guilford, CT, San Francisco, CA, and Beverly, MA.

The Wyss Institute team, headed by George Church, Ph.D., a faculty member at the Wyss Institute and Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, has been ready to go since the prize was first conceived in 2006. It wasn’t until the Ion Torrent team entered in July of this year that the competition really became more than an idea on paper.

There are five phases to the Competition:

     • Centenarian Recruitment: Starting in 2011 and running through the end of this year, the emphasis is on recruiting healthy centenarians who are willing to have their whole genomes sequenced. To be eligible, the person has to have been born before the 5th of September 1913. If you want to be in on this action, or you want to nominate someone, there’s more information at

     • Team Recruitment: Teams can still enter through May 2013. If you just happen to be the head of a multi-disciplinary genetics research team, you can get more information at the prize’s website at

     • Bioinformatics Development: This phase runs through June 2013, and focuses on putting together all of the information needed for methods for storing, retrieving and analyzing the genomic data,

     • Head to Head Competition: The real heart of the competition is in September and October 2013, when the DNA samples have to be sequenced.

     • Judging and Scoring: And the last phase, figuring out who won and making the announcement, is scheduled for October 2013.

So… what’s with this prize thing anyway?

It’s actually a pretty cool concept.

The X Prize Foundation runs a number of what it calls incentivized competitions. The Foundation explains that it hopes to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through “high-profile competitions that motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all disciplines to develop innovative ideas and technologies that help solve the grand challenges that restrict humanity’s progress.”

In short, they sponsor contests where teams of scientists and researchers go head-to-head in the hopes of winning large cash prizes if they can succeed in reaching a particular goal.

They’ve awarded prizes in four competitions so far: the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private, suborbital space flight; the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize for creating safe, affordable, production-capable vehicles that exceed 100 MPG energy equivalent (MPGe); the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X Challenge for advanced rocket development; and the $1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge for highly effective ocean oil spill cleanup methods.

And they still have four competitions open. In addition to the Archon Genomics X Prize, open competitions are:

     • The Google Lunar X Prize: To win this $30 million main prize, privately funded teams must safely land their spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters, and return high definition video, images and data back to Earth. Bonus prizes are available for detecting water, surviving the freezing lunar night and photographing sites of past lunar exploration. There are 26 teams currently entered into the competition.

     • Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize: To win this $10 million prize, teams have to focus on developing precision diagnostic technologies for consumers like the tricorder of Star Trek fame — and they’ll be judged on how accurately they can diagnose specific diseases and conditions.

     • Nokia Sensing X Challenge: This $2.25 million global competition is focused on the development of health sensors and sensing technology to drastically improve and expand the quality and access to health information for everyone worldwide.

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