Selling DNA Data
by William Wells
Incyte doesn't need to make drugs. It already makes
millions of dollars selling a bunch of As, Cs, Gs and Ts.
Human cells are almost ridiculously tiny and efficient. Every one of them
has an entire genetic instruction set - three billion As, Cs, Gs and Ts - packed
into a nucleus one hundredth of a millimeter across. And a few cents worth
of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus will keep millions of cells happy in
a dish, reproducing themselves and their DNA data.
Incyte Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Palo Alto, Calif.) also stores DNA data, but in a way
that is somewhat less compact and far more likely to impress a computer
geek. Ground-zero for Incyte is a highly air-conditioned room filled with
scores of black, towering supercomputers worth up to a million dollars each.
Nine of the ten largest pharmaceutical companies in the world each pay Incyte
~$5 million per year to look at the data on those computers. The money has
brought an expanding workforce - from 160 to 675 employees in the last two
and a half years - and a frantic effort to keep generating more and more information.
"We're maybe a year away from going bankrupt if we don't pursue new
technologies at any one point," says Tod Klingler, Director of Research
Bioinformatics at Incyte.
The manpower and computer power is needed to tame an ever-growing mountain
of DNA sequence information. "We now have 24 organisms completely sequenced
we have their entire genetic message written down," says Temple Smith
of Boston University. "This information allows us to get information
about one organism and use that to understand another."