Home' Technology Review : March April 2011 Contents Q&A
TR: How will this technology transform
Rothberg: This is really about creating
a personalized medicine. Our sequencers
are for research use only now, but eventu-
ally we see them being placed in all labs
and in any clinical setting. That means
doctors will be able to use genetic infor-
mation to make decisions, such as select-
Since it is a 10th the cost of other tech-
nologies and 10 times as fast, it will be an
ideal fit for medical settings, such as clini-
cal genetics labs and pathology labs. And
it works in a time frame of hours, which
matches the decision-making time frame
that physicians often have.
Where do you think the technology will
be adopted first?
We are already seeing it put into
use for cancer and infectious disease.
Researchers at Massachusetts General
Hospital are setting up a system to look at
200 hot spots [regions of DNA that have
been linked to cancer] in tumor samples,
which could be used to determine poten-
tial treatments and to predict outcomes.
People have been talking about incorpo-
rating genetic testing into medicine for
years, ever since the Human Genome
Project. What’s different now?
This is absolutely the turning point.
Patients will be just as likely to have their
genomes sequenced as they will be to
get MRIs or CT scans. And sequencing
doesn’t just tell you where you are; it can
tell you the future. You can see whether
you are predisposed to disease.
How does it work?
Our chip is laid out like an imaging
chip in a digital camera, with millions
of sensors that directly detect changes
in chemical signals. Over each sensor,
we fabricate a little well. Each one of
those wells is an independent sequenc-
ing machine. One piece of the DNA of
interest goes into each one of those wells.
Every time a base [or DNA letter] is
incorporated into the growing strand of
DNA, it releases a hydrogen atom, which
the sensors detect. It’s kind of like the
world’s smallest pH meter.
Other machines on the market can
analyze more DNA than yours. Isn’t that a
problem for Ion Torrent?
When you look at our personal genome
machine, you are looking at the equiva-
lent of the first video game. Think about
what Pong looked like, and then think
about what Xbox looks like. In the next
few years, you are going to see this trans-
formation [in sequencing].
Right now, we can fit 40 machines
[meaning the individual sensors that
detect DNA letters] on a human hair. If
we make chips in a new foundry, rather
than the foundry we are using now, we can
fit 4,000 machines on a hair. And we can
go even denser. Memory chips have bil-
lions of cells, and there is nothing stopping
us from doing the same. We plan to make
sensors that can directly detect billions of
simultaneous sequencing reactions.
You haven’t yet sequenced a complete
human genome—does that matter?
We found out that 80 percent of labs
today want to sequence sets of genes,
from one to 500 genes—not exomes [the
portion of the genome that corresponds
to genes] or genomes. The first chip is
designed for that market. The diagnostic
samples are huge opportunities. [Clini-
cal labs] do 25,000 to 100,000 samples
in which they want to sequence 10 to 500
genes. For HIV, you sequence [particular]
viral genes a million times to see if the
virus has grown resistant to certain drugs.
You have founded a number of sequenc-
ing and genomics companies. What was
your guiding principle for Ion Torrent?
We took the same approach as the
computer guys. Rather than a large,
expensive instrument that is hard to build,
ship, and set up we aimed [for something
more like] a personal computer that any-
one could set up and use.
Reading the sequence of DNA in a
human genome cost about $1 mil-
lion in 2007. Now it costs $10,000 to
$20,000. The ability to cheaply sequence
large volumes of DNA has already led to
the discovery of new disease genes and
improved our understanding of evolu-
tion and human history. But Jonathan
Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, says
that DNA sequencing is on the brink of
another transformation—and this time its
impact will be much more personal.
Rothberg likens the state of genomic
technology to that of computing before
PCs. And in much the way
that the microchip made per-
sonal computers and smart
phones possible, Rothberg
predicts, Ion Torrent’s small,
cheap machine will allow sequencing
to seep into medicine, agriculture, and
Ion Torrent’s tabletop machine costs
$49,000, about a 10th as much as other
“next-generation” sequencers. It uses a
disposable $250 chip that is fabricated in
microprocessor foundries. Industry leader
Life Technologies acquired Ion Torrent
for $375 million in 2010.
Rothberg recently told TR’s biomedi-
cine editor, Emily Singer, why he has such
high expectations for his product.
Photograph by steve moors
The founder of Ion Torrent says
his DNA-sequencing technology
will revolutionize genomics the
way the microprocessor trans-
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