For the first time in its 18-year history, the X Prize Foundation is canceling one of its $10 million competitions for technological innovation: the Archon Genomics X Prize, which was designed to reward quick and accurate whole-genome sequencing.
The prize, established in 2006 with backing from multimillionaire philanthropist Stewart Blusson and his wife, Marilyn, would have been awarded to the first team that could rapidly and accurately sequence 100 whole human genomes to high resolution, at a cost of $10,000 or less per genome.
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"What we realized is that genome sequencing technology is plummeting in cost and increasing in speed independent of our competition," the foundation's co-founder and chairman, Peter Diamandis, wrote in his Huffington Post column on Thursday. "Today, companies can do this for less than $5,000 per genome, in a few days or less — and are moving quickly towards the goals we set for the prize. For this reason, we have decided to cancel an X Prize for the first time ever."
In his column, headlined "Outpaced by Innovation," Diamandis said the competition "was not incentivizing the technological changes" that were intended by the Blussons, prize chair Craig Venter and the X Prize board.
He said the $10 million in prize money would be returned to the Blussons. One hundred centenarians had contributed their DNA to be sequenced, and Diamandis said "we are wholeheartedly committed to finding a noble use of the important genomic data acquired as part of this competition."
Two teams had registered for the competition: Ion Torrent, a California-based company that makes gene-sequencing equipment; and Harvard geneticist George Church and the Wyss Institute. In her report on the prize program's cancellation, PHG Foundation's Phillippa Brice said the decision was bad news for the entrants, "who apparently come away with thanks and good wishes and (presumably) a refund of their $25,000 entrance fee, but without so much as a memory stick to help further their research."
Two $10 million X Prizes have been awarded so far: the Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight (won by SpaceShipOne's team in 2004) and the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize (shared by Edison2, X-Tracer and Li-ion Motors in 2010). Still up for grabs are the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize and the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. The foundation has also managed several smaller-scale X Challenges, including one for prototype lunar landers and another for oil cleanup technologies.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.