Sequencing the genome – the Cambridge effect

What we now know as genomics began with science and technology developed close to AstraZeneca’s new headquarters in Cambridge.

Starting in the 1960s, a biochemist called Frederick Sanger developed an original DNA sequencing method at the Medical Research Council Laboratory on Hills Road in Cambridge. In 1977, he and his colleagues published the genome of an entire organism -  a virus of over 5,000 base pairs - and were able to read every letter, or base pair, of its genes for the first time. Fred Sanger went on to win two Nobel prizes for his work.

Scientists relied on these methods when they started to sequence the entire human genome (which contains three billion base pairs) over 10 years ago. The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, named after Fred Sanger, played a major part in sequencing the first human genomes. The Human Genome Project, a remarkable breakthrough in genomics based on Sanger sequencing, took 10 years to complete and cost nearly $3bn. Until recently, however, DNA sequencing has been prohibitively expensive and too slow to be used routinely in drug discovery and development.

The next major development in DNA sequencing technology started as basic research in the University of Cambridge chemistry department. Drs Balasubramanian and Klenerman used their creative discussions in the lab and at a local pub during the summer of 1997 to develop a new method based on clonal arrays and massively parallel sequencing (now known as sequencing by synthesis technology, or SBS). This became the basis of next-generation sequencing, now the major technology marketed by Illumina.

Thanks to these Cambridge scientists, we can now sequence whole human genomes in only a few days, for less than $1,000 per genome, using next-generation sequencing.