May 13, 2009

Harvard's Church Predicts "Open and Share" are Keys to Future of Genomics

At a public lecture on Tuesday in Chicago, George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, says "Open and Share" are keys to future of genomics. He was invited by Science Chicago and Northwestern University.

Church compared and contrasted open innovation with the traditional closed model. Although open-source is very much appreciated and widely adopted in the software world, it is still relatively new in biology and genomics. Church illustrated the point with "Polonator", a home-brew Next-Generation DNA Sequencer with an open, reconfigurable architecture and a price tag of merely $160K, and compared it with a closed commercial system of more than $500k.

The most interesting point to me, however, is not only the "open and share" of instrument design but also genetic information. In particular, the public sharing of genomic makeups. In order to construct a robust phenotype (for instance, diseases)-to-genotype (i.e., the combination of genes) inference, scientists need volunteers who actively participate in research projects and more importantly, who fully understand the genetic privacy (or lack of privacy thereof!).

 "Somebody has to share. If we all hold on it, we all loose it," Church comments on a question from the audience on whether a person should be aware of the value of or even profit from his/her genetic makeup. Upon the success of 10 volunteers, Church already plans to expand the Personal Genome Project (PGP) into 100,000 participants. All participants in PGP expressly agree to public disclosure of their genetic information, although they might face negative consequences following such disclosures. Alma Pekmezovic, a lecturer at La Trobe University's School of Law, discussed more on this topic in his blog here

"Genomics has a bright future," Church advised a sophomore on choosing majors, "but no matter what you do, always add a computational part to it. In addition, look into the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI)."