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NIH Announces Last Round of Advanced DNA Sequencing Grants

By Bio-IT World Staff 

August 5, 2014 | A new four-year program of grants to organizations developing DNA sequencing technologies, totaling $14.5 million, will bring to a close the Advanced DNA Sequencing Technology initiative that has been funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) for over a decade. The NIH announced the new awards, which will be distributed to eight different organizations over a period of two to four years, in a press release on Monday.

When the NHGRI began the Advanced DNA Sequencing Technology program in 2004, the cost of sequencing a whole human genome was measured in the tens of millions of dollars. The NHGRI made a concerted effort to foster ideas with the potential to radically bend the cost curve, and while the Institute can hardly claim sole credit, that effort has been by any measure a terrific success. The very first round of Advanced DNA Sequencing Technology grants included two awards to the 454 Life Sciences Corporation, which just one year later would announce the first successful sequencing of a bacterial genome using sequencing-by-synthesis. That method that would become foundational to a thousandfold plunge in sequencing costs between 2007 and 2011.

With Illumina's launch this January of its new HiSeq X instruments, which the company claims have delivered the long-sought-after "$1,000 genome," the NHGRI may reasonably feel that its grants have accomplished their mission of enabling DNA sequencing at a scale unimaginable even a decade ago. Nonetheless, the Institute has continued to fund new approaches, including many groups that hope to disrupt the sequencing-by-synthesis paradigm with even more revolutionary devices. Nanopore technology, in particular, has featured in every round of grants from 2004 on; by forcing DNA through nanoscale pores, and reading the DNA bases one by one as they pass through, this method aims to drastically simplify and miniaturize the sequencing process. Oxford Nanopore is now widely expected to deliver the first commercial nanopore sequencing system in the near future, with its MinION device already in early access. Still, there are many possible approaches to a nanopore sequencer, and the NHGRI grants continue to experiment with different ideas.

Four of the new grants announced this week will go to groups working on nanopores, including the largest single grant, of $4.4 million to M. Reza Ghadiri of the Scripps Research Institute, whose team aims to create biological nanopores using lipids, proteins, and DNA scaffolds. Even Illumina received a grant of $592,000 for its own in-house nanopore program. Other grants hope to fill gaps in the utility of modern sequencing technologies: Kun Zhang and Xiaohua Huang of UC San Diego will receive $3.7 million for a single-cell sequencing method, and Jay Shendure of the University of Washington will receive $1.7 million to more efficiently assemble genomes over long distances. 

Although it is bittersweet to see the Advanced DNA Sequencing Technology program winding down, future funding for the field of genomics may be better invested in other directions — such as improving the annotation of the genomes that can now be sequenced in unprecedented volumes. In the meantime, the legacy of these grants can be clearly seen in the NHGRI's now-famous graph of falling sequencing prices.

The full list of new grants can be read at the NIH website.

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