50 million personal genome sequences by 2015?
Just how quickly will the market for personal genome sequences grow? My back-of-the-napkin calculation pegs it at 50 million sequences obtained by 2015, give or take. While this is far from a scientifically derived calculation, my rationale is simply to assume that the trend line for the personal genome sequencing market might look a lot like the one experienced in the personal computer market.
Welcome to 1980
The personal computer industry grew from several thousand units sold in 1975 to 50 million units in 1995. If the personal genome sequencing market follows suit, we might say that 2007 for personal genome sequences was like 1979 for personal computers, and we’ve just turned the corner into 1980 where units sold remains sub 1 million, but growth is noticeable. If growth continues apace, we’ll hit 50 million sequences obtained somewhere around 2015-2020.
Deus ex machina
A difficulty with predicting the future is human agency, or choice. How quickly will people warm to the idea of surfing their personal genome sequence? Although we’re in the early days, personal genome sequencing evangelists are starting to appear in unexpected places. Enter Christopher Hitchens. In a recent interview about his newest book on the Hoover Institute’s show Uncommon Knowledge, he paused and said: “As it happens, I’ve had my DNA sequenced recently. You can get yours done too. And you should, by the way…”. Here is the clip (you can skip the 8 min point):
History, on repeat
How else might the personal genome sequencing market resemble the personal computing industry? For some ideas, witness this absolutely brilliant piece of video from Britain in 1969 — a year when computers were not yet “personal” computers, but they were clearly heading that direction:
The interviews with people on the street are amazing. When asked, “So what do you think of computers?”, responses range from the aloof “What are computers?” to the utopian “a revolution like we’ve never seen” to the dismissive “yeah, they’re great, but I don’t know what all the fuss is about” to the completely dystopian “the government will use them to control us”.
At the close of the video, renowned professor Donald Michie (University of Edinburgh) had this to say:
“[Computers are] bringing about the greatest revolution the human race has ever known…This revolution could lead to terrible consequences, or it could lead to the greatest advances ever for the human race. Which of these things are to happen, is up to us.”
Attaching a number to a 10 year forecast is a fools game. The timescale may be off-base in either direction. The point of writing this post though is to help set expectations about a near-term future where many millions of people have obtained personal genome sequences (including partial sequences). This point still escapes many people who work in and around the genetics field.