The Incredible Shrinking Genome Test

When will the $1 genome get here? It seems like just last month we were talking about the imminent arrival of $1,000 sequencing, thanks to a desktop machine Life Technologies (NAS: LIFE) unveiled at this year's CES. Though sequencing leader Illumina (NAS: ILMN) also demoed a competing machine at the conference, it's not the only challenger. Privately held sequencing start-up Oxford Nanopore, backed and part-owned by Illumina, offered a device that fits on a USB memory stick, costs less than $1,000, and sticks right into a laptop to work its magic.

Is it game over for the big players? Perhaps not. But this portable sequence-on-a-stick shows just how incredibly fast the industry moves. Investors in this segment should accept that there's no way they can ever really relax when sequencing technology seems to leave Moore's Law in the dust.

Dizzying pace
There's no reason to immediately sell your shares and run screaming into the night. Oxford Nanopore also presented a desktop sequencer that it claims can be daisy-chained to 19 others of its ilk to sequence a genome in 15 minutes for $1,500. The only problem is that this daisy-chained setup has a different price structure than other machines, and currently sports an error rate too high to accurately diagnose genetic disorders. Rapid progress from Life Tech, Illumina, or both could sweep the company's still-theoretical cost advantage out of the way in a hurry. The size and cost of the thumb-drive-sized sequencer turned plenty of heads, but it's yet to show viability in the real world.

Impacting an industry
It can be a little dizzying to keep up with all the big news coming from the sequencing sector. I wouldn't have expected big news so soon after the CES reveals, but this just drives home the point I made earlier. You can't relax! Not for a day.

This is especially true of smaller sequencing companies, such as Pacific Biosciences (NAS: PACB) , which is still running losses as the two big players keep progressing. Sequenom (NAS: SQNM) , which uses Illumina machines to process its tests, is bleeding cash enough to plan capital raises this year. Competing tests on Oxford Nanopore machines could undercut its delicately built position in an industry still far from maturity.

Supersized companies aren't any less immune either. You don't hear much about General Electric's (NYS: GE) genomic offerings lately, although the company touted "faster, low-cost DNA sequencing" in 2009. Failing to capitalize on genomics could come back to haunt the company if sequencing becomes as common -- or more common, perhaps -- than the MRI, one of GE Healthcare's dominant niches.

While it's almost impossible to predict the ultimate winners of this sequencing standoff, savvy investors can still find great opportunities in medical technology. One of Fool co-founder David Gardner's favorite multibaggers fits this description. It's got the tools, patents, and proven success to succeed for years to come. Find out more about this explosive opportunity, and request a copy of the brand-new free report that tells you everything you need to know.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Pacific Biosciences of California and Illumina. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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