Melbourne: From the $1 billion and 13 years it took to sequence one human genome in 2000, they brought it down to less than $1,000 now. Chemists Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Sir David Klenerman from Cambridge University were awarded the bi-annual Millennium Technology Prize on May 18 for their service to humanity during the pandemic. It is the world’s largest tech prize, earlier awarded to creator of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the LED Shuji Nakamura and the developer of Linux Linus Torvalds, among others. Balasubramanian and Klenerman think the Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) they developed in 2006 is still in its infancy, they told TOI, because once technology is democratised, “users get creative”.
“We are only scratching the surface of what is possible. It is a long journey… We were surprised to see the benefits it has had on basic research and life sciences… It is exciting to see new creative applications of the technology in journals,” Chennai-born Balasubramanian told TOI.
The origins of NGS go back nearly 25 years when the two were collaborating as independent researchers. “We were not trying to sequence anything or develop technology but the way we were approaching the problem led us to seeing a new way to sequence DNA,” Balasubramanian said. NGS sets up millions of fragments of DNA from a sample on to the surface of a chip in an array. They are then amplified. Each fragment is decoded on that chip using fluorescent coloured nucleotides (building blocks of DNA and RNA). The colour-coded nucleotides are detected over and over, mapping the DNA sequence of each fragment. Because this is done with many fragments at the same time, it is fast, inexpensive and scalable.In 1998, Balasubramanian and Klenerman founded Solexa and put together a team to take what they had found and make the technology workable. In 2006, Illumina acquired Solexa and fine tuned the technology.