Evolution of DNA Sequencing

Last week I had the opportunity to present a lecture on the history of DNA sequencing in Jonathan Eisen’s EVE 161 Microbial Phylogenomics course. This lecture uses Elaine Mardis’ excellent review papers on the next generation sequencing methods as a guide (and required reading). You can see videos of both Dr. Mardis and Dr. Eisen presenting lectures on this topic. Jonathan has also posted about this lecture on microbe.net. While reviewing and presenting the material to a group of mostly undergraduates, I was struck by how as much as this is a history of science, it is also a history of biotechnology and business. These are fields that I haven’t much expertise in but I have friends in business and economics who think about things like patents, litigation and competition. And this made me wonder if the timing of the loss of the patent for Taq DNA polymerase by Roche in 2000 and the expiration of Roche’s patent on PCR in 2005 might have something to do with the rapid expansion of sequencing methods that arose with Next Generation Sequencing. At the time of the patent expiration, the Economist predicted the following:

“However, the patent expiry will probably not change things as radically as some hope. Just as Microsoft keeps its edge by constant upgrades, so Roche still owns hundreds of patents on PCR-related techniques… keeping Roche in clover for some time to come.”

Things look a bit different more than ten years on with Illumina leading the pack and Roche shutting down its 454 sequencing business. I would be curious if anyone else has thoughts about the idea that while patents can reward innovation, they also stifle it. This article on the PCR patent from 2006 suggests that the patent did not impede the dissemination of the technique but this is not exactly the same thing as innovation.

Finally another pressing question I have is why we call it Next Generation Sequencing and if this means that it has something to do with Star Trek.

Jonathan says that it’s really all about our DNA sequins.

The origins of NGS from http://www.startrek.com/database_article/tuvix-episode
The origins of NGS? http://www.startrek.com/database_article/tuvix-episode


2 thoughts on “Evolution of DNA Sequencing

  1. “I would be curious if anyone else has thoughts about the idea that while patents can reward innovation, they also stifle it.”: Heavens, yes! The U.S. is afflicted with a plague of patent trolls, and their impact on legitimate businesses is massive and baleful. See, for example:




    Trolling with software patents in particular has become so severe in this country that my next company – long delayed but still coming – won’t be incorporated here. I don’t like it a bit, but it’s now suicidal to start a consumer-facing software company in the U.S. without a giant wad of money on hand. Even developers of mildly successful phone apps have been attacked by trolls like Lodsys, and matters of principle aside, unless you have a giant wad of money, you simply can’t afford to “make it go away for $100,000”, as the CEO of Life360 put it:


    Incorporation elsewhere by no means fully solves the problem, but it’s the best I can do until enough members of the U.S. Congress aren’t owned by trolls and other opponents of reform, notably big pharmaceutical companies, if that day ever comes.

    More broadly, I suspect patents stifle innovation far more than they promote it. For one thing, patent litigation is expensive, so patents tend to be of little use to people or organizations that aren’t already rich. For example, many years ago, I learned something of the struggles of Philo Farnsworth, a pioneer of television, against RCA. RCA flagrantly violated some of Farnsworth’s patents, and although Farnsworth eventually prevailed in court, it took years, it cost a bundle, and it never paid Farnsworth anywhere near what RCA had made from the violations. For RCA, even though it lost, the costs of the litigation were just a cost of doing business.

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