Pacific Biosciences' $600 Million Decoder Ring

April 28, 2011

On Apr. 28, in a factory in Menlo Park, Calif., a few black and white machines were being assembled and prepped to go into shipping crates. The machines looked like fancier-than-usual copier equipment. Each was about half the size of a MINI Cooper and adorned with some design flourishes—oversized, glowing power buttons, a slick touchscreen monitor on the side. Still, to look at them you wouldn't know they cost $700,000 a pop, that they're the result of a 14-year, nearly $600 million quest, or that their creators believe these machines may change the scientific understanding of life itself.

These are the first production models of the PacBio RS, gene sequencers made by a startup called Pacific Biosciences, and they're heading to research laboratories around the U.S., including several national defense labs and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Move past its smooth exterior and the RS reveals an interwoven collection of lasers, chemical mixing stations, cameras, robotic arms, and special chips. It's essentially a superpowerful microscope that records, in real time, biological processes on a molecular scale. That means it can see the creation of the tiniest of things—including, most crucially, DNA—in rapid-fire action. Soon enough, the RS may well do something that's never been done before: Take an entire strand of human DNA, with its 3 billion bits of information, and map it out in minutes.

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