Sequencing technologies

How have gene sequencing technologies developed, and what does this mean for researchers today?

The first complete genome to be sequenced, in 1977, came from a tiny bacterium-infecting virus called phi X174. It has just 11 genes and a little over 5,000 base pairs. Since then, biology has seen an explosion of sequence information.

The speed is a by-product of the efforts that went into the Human Genome Project. Ever-improving technologies have made DNA sequencing faster, more accurate and far cheaper. In 1997, it cost about $1 per base to sequence DNA. A decade later, $1 paid for 1,000 bases.

Today, DNA sequences are stored in fast-growing computer databases. The data centre at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute outside Cambridge currently has 28 petabytes (peta = 1 followed by 15 zeros) of storage, enough for around 40,000 laptops. Researchers need powerful software to search the DNA sequences. Bioinformatics – the art of harnessing computer power to make sense of mountains of biological data – is a growth area, along with genomics.

Graph showing improvements in the rate of sequence generation over a 30-year period

Improvements in the rate of sequence generation over a 30-year period.

A. Manual slab gel
B. Automated slab gel
C. First-generation capillary
D. Second-generation capillary sequencer
E. Microwell pyrosequencing
F. Short-read sequencers
G. Single molecule?


Graph reproduced with permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 458, 719-724 (2009).


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About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Genes, Genomes and Health’ in January 2010 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Genetics and genomics, History
Genes, Genomes and Health
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development