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Business Growth, Life Science

The iPod Of Sequencing

Contributed by: Alejandro Gutierrez

The day is not far off (less than five years, if Pacific Biosciences and others deliver on their promises) when sequencing a complete human genome will be a matter of a few minutes and a hundred dollars. It will be a routine analysis in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Sequencing tools may never become consumer gadgets, but they may eventually be integrated into home pregnancy tests: not only will you find out if you’re expecting – you’ll also learn the sex of the fetus, and whether any worrisome genetic predispositions are in store.

As sequencing slowly slips into the mainstream, the names of the sequencing companies and the instruments they sell have started to become more creative and more descriptive. This year has seen the emergence of some distinctly “un-technical” names for sequencers. Meanwhile, the appearance of consumer genomics firms has already given us a sampling of the kinds of mass-market names we should expect to see in coming years.

Even now, however, most sequencing brands and product names retain the traditional high-tech nomenclature. With the exception of the MegaBACE (see table, below), early sequencer names reflected standard practice for technology platforms – instead of real names, a reliance on often-cryptic, and to most end-users meaningless, numbers and letters, as well as the use of ever-higher numbers to denote increased performance. The real brands were the companies’ names.

Company Product (Year) Technology
Applied Biosystems ABI Model 370A (1986) Slab-gel electrophoresis
Molecular Dynamics (purchased by Amersham) MegaBACE 1000 (1997) Capillary electrophoresis
Applied Biosystems ABI PRISM 3700 DNA Analyzer (1998) Capillary electrophoresis
Beckman Coulter CEQ 2000 (1998) Capillary electrophoresis
LI-COR 4300 (2003) Slab-gel electrophoresis

The introduction of next-generation sequencers continued this practice: the GS 20 (GS = Genome Sequencer), the GA (Genome Analyzer), and their upgraded versions: GS FLX, GA II, GA IIx. Applied Biosystems first broke with this trend by naming its next-generation entry “SOLiD” – which stands for Sequencing by Oligonucleotide Ligation and Detection. SOLiD’s ever-improving lineage has been marked with the addition of arabic numerals: up to SOLiD 4 as of this writing. Rounding out the next-generation entries is the Polonator, whose name, with its robotic, science-fiction connotations, is probably the most well-suited name of all sequencing platforms: it evokes the platform’s open, configurable architecture and the image of a technically-savvy adopter – the sequencing equivalent of an auto enthusiast – tinkering away in a laboratory.

Company names have also evolved: as start-ups entered the fray, names became less conventional. Top of mind is 454 Life Sciences, which is more generally known in abbreviated form as 454. To this day, the meaning of the company’s name (which persists as an operating unit within Roche) is a mystery known only, according to one source, to the company’s founder. Illumina was another name that gained quick currency along with the success of its GA sequencers (which it acquired from Solexa). Both the Illumina and Solexa names stand out for their lack of explicit reference to life sciences or technology. At the other end of this extreme, Life Technologies became the adopted name for the combination of Invitrogen (a consumables manufacturer) and Applied Biosystems. Another notable start-up is Complete Genomics, which boasts the most utilitarian name in the industry, and the only one that explicitly identifies its mission and market focus at the same time.

Even as technology providers race to introduce new platforms, the nascent consumer genomics industry has seen its first batch of entrants, all with consumer-friendly names that combine some aspect of genetics linked to the concept of discovery or personalization: 23andme, a play on the number of human chromosome pairs, Navigenics, deCODE Genetics and Knome. Each of these names bears the imprint of market research (or at least a careful, conscious attempt to trigger a connection in consumers’ minds), yet lacks the spontaneity of household internet start-up names like Yahoo! and Google.

Two of the third-generation sequencing companies have adopted place names in their company names. Pacific Biosciences plays on the association of “Pacific” with the west coast of the United States, while Oxford Nanopore Technologies trades on the association with the prestigious university city, where it is based. The name Pacific Biosciences was a significant departure from that company’s original name, Nanofluidics, which, according to this story, was difficult to spell, hard to explain, and more specific than it needed to be. Now, Pacific Biosciences has semi-formally adopted “PacBio”, which has the twin benefits of being shorter and also sounding more like a brand. Perhaps Oxford Nanopore will eventually drop the “nanopore” from its name, or opt for an abbreviated form like ONT.

As technology continues to evolve and start-ups jockey for position with established players, another trend is influencing company and product names: the pursuit of the low-end sequencing market, more akin to a consumer market than to the high-end research market where most next-generation sequencing companies have focused to date. Though both Illumina and Life Technologies offer lower-throughput versions of their high-end platforms, their choice of names reflects the true nature of these products: the GA IIe and SOLiD PI are scaled-down versions of the high-end platforms, but they are not designed or priced for the low-end of the market in the way that the “GS Junior” or the “Personal Genome Machine” are. The use of the suffix “Junior” for 454 Life Sciences’ new entry is not just cute, it is a statement of intent in that it sounds and feels more like a consumer brand, a brand aimed at a broader market.

The name of Ion Torrent Systems’ Personal Genome Machine is in keeping with the company’s stated aim of democratizing sequencing. For a product priced at one-tenth the going rate for high-end systems, and which stakes such a large claim on the heritage of semiconductors and computers, it appropriately borrows the “Personal” from the PC. Instead of “Genome Machine” the firm could have gone with “Sequencer” – but Genome Machine sounds more down-to-earth and thus, again, better aligned with a tool that aims to launch a “mass” market for sequencers.

Among the more recent entrants, with as yet unnamed products, Halcyon Molecular and Gnu Bio are both names that combine a memorable word, destined to become the shorthand term of reference, with a clue to their industry focus. Halcyon is perhaps the more provocative of the two: with its implied reference to happiness and prosperity, it could seem an unlikely choice for a sequencing firm, whereas Gnu is the most quirky – especially because the proper pronunciation is not “’nü” (as in the animal), but “g-noo”, as in the free Unix-like operating system. (It does not appear, however, that the company intends to offer its technology for free.)

As sequencing continues to move from the realm of research into the nearer approaches of everyday experience, the technology will lose its mystique and certain brand names may even creep into the general vernacular. At some point, we may have the sequencing equivalent of “googling” something. One company’s product will become the Walkman of DNA analysis, or the iPod of sequencing tools. Sequencing might remain the province of researchers, clinicians or pathologists, yet even there, a yet-to-be-invented, yet-to-be-named product may so definitively establish itself as to become a “household” name. Of course, the name itself will very likely be an accidental, offhand choice. The real story will be the product and the company that recognizes and seizes the market opportunity for true ease-of-use, portability and affordability.