Illinois supercomputers, expertise to help determine winner of genomics prize

02.27.12 -

Beginning in January 2013, teams will compete to accurately sequence the genomes of 100 healthy centenarians within 30 days for less than $1,000 per genome. A $10 million prize will be either awarded to a single winner or divided among successful teams. The Archon Genomics X PRIZE presented by Medco is intended to inspire breakthroughs in genome sequencing that will lead to the creation of a "medical grade" genome that can be used to improve patient diagnosis and treatment.

Determining who wins the $10 million prize is no easy feat. It will require a validation protocol crafted by a team of genomics experts, the development of sophisticated bioinformatics software, and the data-crunching power of the supercomputers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Step one was defining, for the first time, what it means to have a complete and accurate "whole human genome sequence." This validation protocol is not simply important in determining the competition's winner; it also creates a universal standard of quality, accuracy, and completeness for the sequencing industry. Among the experts who began work on this standard in 2010 was Victor Jongeneel, a senior research scientist at both NCSA and Illinois' Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB).

"The validation protocol was the most difficult part of this," Jongeneel says.

Once competitors complete their sequences, they will transfer their massive data sets to NCSA, which will ensure the confidentiality and proper handling of the data. Sophisticated bioinformatics software developed by EdgeBio will be run on NCSA's high-performance computing systems, which have the teraflops of computing power required to quickly analyze the data and determine the winner without controversy.

One hundred centenarians—known as the Medco 100 Over 100—are donating their DNA for this competition. Their genome sequences may provide valuable insights into health and longevity. When the contest is over, most of their data will be available to researchers via the National Institutes of Health's dbGaP data resource and NCSA will archive the raw data for the X-PRIZE Foundation.

Anyone 100 years of age or older can be nominated to participate in this research effort. To nominate a centenarian, go to: