By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington
The US-based X-Prize Foundation is offering what it says is the largest medical prize in history - $10m - for the first private team that can decode 100 human genomes in 10 days.
It is hoped that rapid genome sequencing will transform medicine
Organisers say rapid genetic sequencing is science's next great frontier, and will usher in a new era of personalised medicine, allowing doctors to determine patients' susceptibility to illness and the genetic links to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's.
The Archon X-Prize for Genomics is the second major challenge from the foundation, which in 2004 awarded $10m to the team behind the private manned spacecraft SpaceShipOne.
It currently costs millions of dollars and takes many months to sequence an individual's genome, encoded in DNA. Tests of certain genes are already helping doctors select treatments and therapies for individual patients.
Yet scientists say the real benefits to mankind will only come when a much larger sampling of genetic information is available to help decipher the environmental and hereditary aspects of disease.
Dr J Craig Venter - one of the scientists behind the first sequencing of the human genetic code - is on the X-Prize's scientific advisory board.
Anousheh Ansari has volunteered to be part of the "Genome 100"
"We need a database of millions of human genomes to help us fully decipher the nature and nurture aspects of human existence," he said.
Yet - as the foundation acknowledges - this is a controversial area of research fraught with ethical, legal and social implications.
Public concerns about information privacy, and fears of future discrimination based not on race or class, but genetics, are already said to be slowing research at a significant rate.
Dr Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Research Institute, said: "There are real questions here of the benefits versus the risks. We need appropriate protections for people, and we need the public to engage in a policy debate."
Almost three years ago, the US Senate passed legislation specifically banning employers and insurers from discriminating against people based on the results of genetic tests.
THE DNA MOLECULE
The double-stranded DNA molecule is held together by four chemical components called bases
Adenine (A) bonds with thymine (T); cytosine(C) bonds with guanine (G)
Groupings of these "letters" form the "code of life"; there are about 2.9 billion base-pairs in the human genome wound into 24 distinct bundles, or chromosomes
Written in the DNA are about 20-25,000 genes which human cells use as starting templates to make proteins; these sophisticated molecules build and maintain our bodies
But this Genetic Non-Discrimination bill is currently stalled in the House of Representatives. There are hopes that the X-Prize will help push the bill to completion.
As a follow-up to the competition, the winning team will be paid to map the genetic sequences of the "Genome 100" - a group of celebrities, benefactors and members of the public.
That group already includes Dr Stephen Hawking, CNN's Larry King; and Anousheh Ansari, the world's first female "space tourist", whose family funded the original X-Prize for the first private manned spaceflight.
Following on from the success of the original Ansari prize, the X-Prize Foundation intends to launch two prizes per year. The next launch is expected in early 2007.
The foundation describes itself as an educational, non-profit prize institute that aims to bring about "radical breakthroughs in space and technology for the benefit of humanity".
Archon Minerals is the title sponsor of the Archon X-Prize for Genomics after a multi-million dollar donation by the company's president, Dr Stewart Blusson.