Betting on the Next 20 Years of Genomic Science

Without a doubt, the Human Genome Project produced some of the most significant advancements in genomic science of the past two decades, from seismic improvements in genomic sequencing technologies to the first ever “map” of the human genome.  In 2000, as the Human Genome Project was marching toward completion, Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute wound up in an argument with Francis Collins (then head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and today the Obama administration’s nominee for head of the NIH) over the number of genes in the human genome.  What resulted was a friendly competition — dubbed GeneSweep — between some of the world’s preeminent genomic researchers to predict the final tally which, in 2003, was announced at a mere 21,000 genes.  The winner, Lee Rowen from the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle, collected more than $1,000 and a signed copy of The Double Helix for her prediction of 25,947 genes.

Now a pair of prominent scientists have placed a new wager on the course of the next two decades of genomic research.  As described in the New Scientist, a case of fine port hangs in the balance of this sentence:

By May 1, 2029, given the genome of a fertilised egg of an animal or plant, we will be able to predict in at least one case all the details of the organism that develops from it, including any abnormalities.

Dr. Lewis Wolpert believes that “advances in cell biology, systems biology and computing” will soon enough permit scientists to elucidate all of the protein-coding genes in a given organism’s genome (a process that, today, is far from complete in the human genome) and, from there, determine that organism’s future development.  Dr. Rupert Sheldrake counters by challenging the predictive power of genes, particularly in humans.  For example, although genomic research has identified more than 50 regions of the genome that contribute to height, a recent study found that those genetic loci were able to predict only 4-6% of the variance in individual height, while a much less sophisticated (and substantially less expensive) predictive model developed by Sir Francis Galton in 1886, which relies solely on knowing the heights of an individual’s parents, was able to predict fully 40% of that same variance.

So who will walk away with the prize this time?  Although Dr. Wolpert has set a very high bar — the description of “all“, not merely “some” or even “most”, of an organism’s developmental blueprint — in a field as rapidly evolving as genomic science two decades is a veritable eternity.  And even today, the commercial genomics landscape is bursting with companies, investors and academics eager to explore and to capitalize upon the predictive power of the human genome, which suggests that there may be plenty of optimists prepared to side with Dr. Wolpert.

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