Many people don't realize just how important gene sequencing has become. Increasingly more drugs are being developed and launched that were made possible only through genetic research enabled by sequencing systems. There are quite a few great growth stocks focused on gene sequencing, but what about dividend stock opportunities?

Investors might be pleasantly surprised to find out that several companies that are actively involved in gene sequencing pay solid dividends. General Electric (NYSE:GE), Roche Holdings (NASDAQOTH:RHHBY),  and Quest Diagnostics (NYSE:DGX) especially stand out. Here's why these are the three top dividend stocks in gene sequencing.

DNA strand

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General Electric

General Electric is involved in gene sequencing in a couple of ways. GE Healthcare markets MegaBACE automated sequencers for genomic sequencing and large-scale genotyping studies. In addition, the huge conglomerate acquired SeqWright, a provider of gene sequencing services, in 2012 to bolster GE Healthcare's Clarient molecular diagnostics business unit. 

GE's dividend currently pays out 3.41%, giving the company the highest yield of all companies in the gene sequencing space. It boasts a great track record, paying a dividend for more than 100 years and counting. The one drawback, though, is that GE's payout ratio of nearly 88% is relatively high. GE didn't increase its dividend last year. 

Roche Holdings

Roche's diagnostics business segment generated roughly 23% of the company's total revenue last year. Gene sequencing is a key growth driver within this segment. Roche has made several strategic acquisitions in recent years to expand its gene sequencing product line, including the purchase of 454 Life Sciences and Genia Technologies. 

Its dividend looks quite attractive, with a yield of 3%. Roche has a solid history of dividend increases, although the amounts of the increases have slowed down somewhat in recent years. The company uses 73% of its earnings to fund the dividend program.

Quest Diagnostics

Quest Diagnostics offer next-generation sequencing services to its customers along with a comprehensive array of genetic testing.  The company launched a new service in late 2016 that combines IBM's Watson cognitive computing technology with genomic tumor sequencing. 

Its dividend currently yields 1.7%. The company has paid a dividend since 2004 and has increased it in each of the past five years. Quest Diagnostics also claims a low payout ratio of just over 34%, which indicates its ability to increase dividends in the future if it chooses to do so.

Other contenders -- past, present, and future 

Johnson & Johnson would have made the list with its nice dividend yield of 2.64%. The healthcare giant in the past offered next-generation gene sequencing as one of the services with its CellSearch system. However, J&J's Janssen Diagnostics unit recently sold CellSearch and related assets to Menarini-Silicon Biosystems. 

A couple of other companies with significant efforts in the gene sequencing market currently pay dividends, but their dividends weren't strong enough to make the top three. Agilent Technologies' dividend yield stands at 0.94%, while Thermo Fisher Scientific claims a dividend yield of 0.35%.

Perhaps the most influential gene sequencing company of all doesn't pay a dividend now, but there's at least a chance that it could sometime down the road. Illumina is a pioneer in gene sequencing and has been instrumental in lowering the costs for mapping genomes. The company generates plenty of cash flow and its future looks bright, so initiation of a dividend program in the future could be a possibility.

Keith Speights has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Illumina and Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.