Science & Environment

Genetic entrepreneur to compete in Genomics X Prize

104-year-old woman
Genetic make-up contributes to longevity

A race to unlock genetic clues behind living to 100 is set to begin next year, after a US team announced it will compete for the $10m Genomics X Prize.

Genetic entrepreneur Dr Jonathan Rothberg is entering the challenge to identify genes linked to a long, healthy life.

His team - and any other contenders - will be given 30 days to work out the full DNA code of 100 centenarians at a cost of no more than $1,000 per genome.

The race will start in September 2013.

Under the rules of the Archon Genomics X Prize, teams have until next May to register for the competition.

Dr Rothberg's team from Life Technologies Corporation in California is the first to formally enter the race.

Being able to sequence the full human genome at a cost of $1,000 or less is regarded as a milestone in science.

It is seen as the threshold at which DNA sequencing technology becomes cheap enough to be used widely in medicine, helping in diagnosis and in matching drugs to a patient's genetic make-up.

One hundred people aged 100 have donated their DNA for the project.

Scientists believe people who reach a very old age may have certain rare changes in their genes which protect against common diseases of later life, such as heart disease and cancer.

If these genes can be identified by analysing the DNA codes of centenarians, it will help scientists search for new medical treatments and perhaps ways to prolong life.

However, many sample DNA sequences will be needed in order to get the accuracy needed to pinpoint changes on the scale of a few genetic letters among the three billion in the human genome.

Dr Jonathan Rothberg, a geneticist and entrepreneur, said the DNA of 100 centenarians is a good start towards finding "the fountains of youth".

He told BBC News: "One hundred people will give you a hint. One thousand will make you reasonably sure. Ten thousand will let you say, 'Hey, these are the genes involved in cancer or heart disease'".

Dr Craig Venter is the originator of the prize and one of the main players in the race to sequence the first human genome, which was completed in 2003.

He said he could never have imagined that genome sequencing would come this far in so little time.

He told the BBC: "I can't emphasise [enough] how impressed I am with the progress of technology and the dropping of the cost.

"If they can do a human genome in two hours with one little machine, it's just stunning. We have come a long way."

The X Prize Foundation offers awards for solutions to modern scientific challenges, from space to the human genome.

Any data gleaned from the X Prize will be shared with other scientists in the field, to aid the quest for insights into ageing.

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