IBM's Killer Idea: The $100 DNA-Sequencing Machine

By Derek Thompson

We asked IBM for its smartest new innovation. This is what they gave us.

The problem: Learning to sequence DNA fast and cheap might be the most important challenge in health technology. Understanding each patient's full genetic sequencing would give doctors X-Ray vision into their patients' unique makeup and future diseases. There's one big catch. Gene sequencing costs tens of thousands of dollars.

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The idea: IBM wants to build a "DNA Transistor" that would be the world's cheapest genetic reader. Scientists refer to the idea as the "$1,000 genome." But IBM says they might be able to get the cost of sequencing down to $100.

Remember the View-Master you played with as a kid? That red binocular-shaped device that let you click-click-click through 3D images? Well, this would work sort of like a DNA View-Master on the smallest conceivable level. Scientists drill a nano-sized hole -- 3,000 times slimmer than a human hair -- through a silicon computer chip and thread a DNA strands through it. "As the molecule is passed through the nanopore, it is ratcheted one unit of DNA at a time," IBM said. Click, click, click, and the long sequence of DNA would be sequenced.

The potential: If doctors could know and use the full genetic sequence of every patient, the potential would be enormous. It would turn doctors into little prophets. Diseases and disorders could be caught and diagnosed early. Medicine could be radically personalized. Doctors would be working with a kind of super-X-Ray into the latent and not-so-latent illnesses of their patients.

Want to share your company's best idea -- or your own! -- for our Best Ideas series? Leave your idea in the comment section or email me a description and a photograph at dthompson@theatlantic.com.

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The Best Ideas Series

IBM: The $100 Genome Sequence Machine

GE: A Real-Time Energy Dashboard For Your House

Google: A Personal Translator on Your Phone

Facebook: A Social Solution to Password Security

Under Armour: The World's Smartest Shirt

Siemens: The World's 1st Hybrid Electric Airplane

Genentech: Chemotherapy Without Side-Effects

PARC: A Better, Faster, Stronger Internet

Andreessen Horowitz: A Camera That Focuses After You Click

Duke University: A Cancer Flashlight

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/ibms-killer-idea-the-100-dna-sequencing-machine/248525/