I feel a strong personal draw to the topic of the Nobel Week Dialog, the genetic revolution. When I first started graduate school back in 1989, the biological research community was still debating whether sequencing the human genome was a worthwhile use of our resources. The project went ahead and, by the time I graduated, there was a complete genome sequence available for my research organism of choice, the fruit fly Drosophila.
A few years later, I was in the audience when Eric Lander gave a talk on what they had learned while sequencing the human genome, results that wouldn’t appear in print until the week following. Shortly after, I found myself benefitting from all the work done at sequencing centers around the world, as I relied on data from the mouse genome almost daily to guide my then-current research project. Without it, I don’t think I would have been able to identify a gene that was responsible for defects that were first described 90 years ago.
Shortly after that success, though, I found myself transitioning out of research, eventually finding a new career as a science writer. There were a lot of personal and professional reasons for that transition, but I think you could also describe it in terms of genomes. As I said above, my research career depended on understanding the mouse genome. It never really mattered whether I knew much about the human genome, much less those of animals like the platypus or amphioxus, or our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals. But I found myself wanting to know more — even though, if anything, spending the time reading about them got in the way of my research career.
Now, as a writer, knowing more about things has become my career. It’s a much better fit for my personality, and it’s turned what had been bad habits when I was doing research into useful tendencies in my new career.
This dialog on the genetic revolution comes at time where I want to know more about the future of genomics. We’ve buildt a huge infrastructure for DNA sequencing, one that’s succeeded in all of its initial goals. Now, at a time where research budgets are stretched or shrinking around the globe, deciding how best to use that infrastructure (and how much of it to maintain) could be a real challenge.
Meanwhile, though, the private space for genomes is exploding as the costs continue to drop. I haven’t yet gotten my genome sequenced, but I suspect it’s just a matter of time, given that I’ve heard mention of prices that are in the neighborhood of a high-end laptop. Of course, if I do take that leap, I’ll be faced with more questions: what do you do with your own genome? I recently helped organize an event where Ron Crystal, head of Genetic Medicine at Cornell Medical College, described how having his genome sequence completed took about a week, but having it analyzed took even longer and required more people (and, presumably, money).
So, I’ll be very interested in seeing what Eric Lander has to say now, with the human genome over a decade behind him. And I’m counting on the other speakers to add their own perspectives to his. Thanks to the project Lander helped lead, we’ve reached the point where getting a genome done is the easy part. To me, it seems like we’re still trying to understand how best to use that information. I’m hoping to get some insights from this dialog, so that I’m ready for when the prices drop enough that I end up having mine sequenced.
Hopefully, by writing about any answers I get to my questions, I can make it easier for anyone who finds themselves wondering similar things.
John Timmer is the Science Editor at Ars Technica, a science and technology news site. He also reviews eBooks for Download the Universe and helps organize Spot On NYC. You can find more of his thoughts (along with an embarrassing photo of him) in this article.