X prize-ing open the genome for $$$


When Spaceship One touched down for landing in the Mojave desert in October 2004, inventor Burt Rutan immediately claimed the $10 million 'X Prize' for building the first ever private spaceship . The lure of the well marketed X Prize made possible a new age of commercial spaceflight now being realised by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism service - due to blast off in 2008. But outer space was just the beginning...

Not content with heading for the stars, the corporate sponsored X-Foundation that awards the X-prize has now set a bounty for commericalising the neXt frontier - the human genome. According to this article in the Wall Street Journal the X-foundation will award a new X-prize of between $5-$20 million to the first inventor of a gene sequencer that can decode the DNA of 100 people in a matter of weeks. At present it takes about six months to decode a single human genome.

And the brainchild behind the new X prize? J Craig Venter -the original 'bad boy of biology'. These days Venter seems to pop up everywhere - or at least anywhere that money and genes mix - and ETC have been monitoring his activities for over a decade. Ever the competitive type, he first became notorious in 1992 when as a public researcher he applied for patents on thousands of gene sequences for the human brain - a move that DNA pioneer James Watson described as "sheer lunacy". Later he founded the company Celera which sold data from the human genome to the pharmaceutical industry and beat the National Institutes of Health to cracking the genome. Venter is now undertaking the largest ever biopiracy voyage (read about it here and here ), scooping up microbial genomes to build the world's first fully artificial organism.If it sounds like the X-Prize has just merged with the X-files read on...

Venter, who is now a trustee of the X-foundation, was originally recruited by another board member, Larry Page - the geekish co-founder of Google. According to a recent authorised biography of Google by Washington post writer David Vise. Venter and Google are in the process of cooking up the biopirates dream tool: A completely searchable online database of genetic information so that individuals can 'google' their own genome and discover their own genetic 'defects'.

Its all part of a vision of personalised genetic medicines or pharmacogenetics - a prospect that has the pharmaceutical industrial strategists salivating. As any niche marketer will confirm - personalised anything commands a higher price and the pharmaceutical industry would like to be able to market medicines directly to individuals - offering wellness drugs and human enhancement therapies tailored to their personal genome. Whether genomic medicine works or not is dubious and perhaps irrelevant - the potential profits are huger than even google could imagine..

Thankfully there are a few civil society voices raising warnings against this brave new era of personal genomics. (eg Check out this briefing from Genewatch UK and of course this from ETC group).

Oh and the next X Prize will apparently be for creating a nanotech assembler. what the xxxx???!