We just never realized it, thanks to hidden subsidies. Mick Watson asks:
It seems such a long time ago (in reality: 5 years) that many people hailed next-generation sequencing as the “democratization” of sequencing. The heart of the idea was that, previously, only large genome centres could sequence genomes; but with the advent of next-generation sequencing, relatively small facilities could now sequence Gbs per day and effectively repeat the human genome project in just a few days.
Have Illumina just reversed this? As I have written about at length, Illumina have enabled the $1000 genome – if you have $10 million for the equipment and can sequence 18,000 genomes per year. You will also need considerable informatics kit. This is beyond the reach of many small- to medium- scale labs, many of whom invested in Illumina machines based on the idea that they would become “genome centres”.
I would argue that the democratization of sequencing has largely been a mirage. That’s because there’s a lot of confusion between the price of sequencing and the cost. The real costs of sequencing: lab space to put the machine, often the machine itself, staff to run the machine, IT costs and so on, are often externalized away from the researcher: universities or private funders (or some combination thereof) will subsidize these costs. What this means is that there’s rarely (or never) an accounting of what sequencing actually costs. If there were, the cost per base for many smaller centers would be pretty atrocious. Universities have viewed some sequencing capacity as a necessary pre-requisite for obtaining funding, so they foot these bills rather than telling PIs to outsource their sequencing (there’s also a vanity component involved). But there have always been two tiers (at least) when it comes to sequencing.
We have a long way to go before we achieve democratization of sequencing.