Sequencing technologies

Sequencing room
How have gene sequencing technologies developed and what does this mean for researchers today?

The first complete genome to be sequenced, in 1977, came from a tiny bacterium-infecting virus called phi X174. It has just 11 genes, and a little over 5000 base pairs. Since then, biology has seen an explosion of sequence information. Small genomes can now be generated in hours or days.

The speed is a by-product of the efforts which went into the Human Genome Project. Ever-improving technologies have made DNA sequencing faster, more accurate, and far cheaper. In 1997, it cost about $1 per base to sequence DNA. A decade later, $1 paid for 1000 bases.

Today, DNA sequences are stored in fast-growing computer databases. The data centre at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute outside Cambridge currently has four petabytes (peta = 1 followed by 15 zeros) of storage, enough for around 15 000 laptops. Researchers need powerful software to search the DNA sequences. Bioinformatics - the art of harnessing computer power to make sense of mountains of biological data - is a growth area along with genomics.

Improvements in the rate of DNA sequencing over the past 30 years and into the future
Improvements in the rate of DNA sequencing over the past 30 years and into the future. From slab gels to capillary sequencing and second-generation sequencing technologies, there has been a more than a million-fold improvement in the rate of sequence generation over this time scale.

This article originally appeared as part of ‘Big Picture: Genes, Genomes and Health’

Graph reproduced with permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 458, 719-724 (2009).

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