I decided, based on reader input and my own inclination, to attend the $1,000 Human Genome breakout session.
Scientists have finished sequencing a single human genome; however, the most dramatic benefits won’t be realized until we find a way to quickly and cheaply obtain genetic profiles for individuals.
Moderator: Emily Singer, Technology Review
Panelists: George M. Church, Professor of Genetics and Director of the Center for Computational Genetics, Harvard Medical School; George Weinstock, Professor, Departments of Molecular & Human Genetics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology and co-director, Human Genome Sequencing Center, Baylor College of Medicine; Jene Golovchenko, Professor of Physics, Harvard University; Michael Egholm, Vice President of Molecular Biology, 454 Life Sciences
Because this truly is an emerging technology with significant societal implications, the subject arguably is as relevant to CRN's work as is the nanotoxicity session or any of the other breakouts. And besides that, it's a field that my niece, a PhD candidate at Harvard, works in.
The first panelist to present is Dr. George Weinstock, who will introduce the topic. The NIH (US National Institutes for Health) is targetting a $100,000 genome by 2008, and a $1000 genome by 2013. Weinstock says there are many new technology platforms coming online that will support this effort. It's a huge initiative involving many universities and corporations.
Just as important as the ability to inexpensively map an individual human genome is the creation of a catalog or database of common human mutations and variations. We'll need something to compare each genome with, and that project is "a huge job" in its own right.
The next presenter is George Church. He says he has been working on sequencing individual human genomes since 1977, and seems much less optimistic than the previous presenter in reaching the complete $1K goal, at least within the target time frame. On the other hand, he says that if we focus NOW on the "juiciest" 1% of the individual human genome, then we could make rapid progress right away.
Michael Egholm is presenting next. He is describing the challenges of taking an emerging technology, one that is still being developed in the laboratory, and translating it into a commercial product. The work of his company, 454 Life Sciences, is quite impressive. However, his opinions about methods and results in genome sequencing seem to contradict both of the previous presenters. I'm starting to see a great deal of competitiveness in this field, which often can be a good thing, of course, but which also can lead to confusing information for the non-expert. Egholm's company also is the one that is working to sequence the Neandertal genome -- a fascinating project!
The final presenter is Jene Golovchenko. He's posing the question, "Could you build a transistor that could read a human genome?" It's apparently not just a thought question, but actually a radically different non-biological approach to DNA sequencing using a "Nanopore Detector." I won't try to explain it all here, but it appears to be a remarkably ingenious approach, making use of carbon nanotubes as conductors. Wow, very impressive.
My takeaway from this session is that you should expect to see dramatic breakthroughs; we may not be able to specify exactly where or when they will come, but with all this effort and money and brainwork going into it, the field is bound to progress rapidly.
The next session, starting in about 20 minutes, is on the topic of robotic vehicles. Come on, let's go for a ride!