Genetic Revolution and its impact on society: over view

Nobel Week pic

Today, a special webcast was broadcasted globally under the umbrella of Noble Week Dialogue. The webcast was titled Genetic Revolution and its impact on society and consisted of leading scientists and Nobel Laureates too. Noble Week Dialogue is a latest addition to the event pertaining to the run up to the Noble Prize main event.

The goal of the event was to bring together a select group of the world’s leading scientists, policy-makers and thinkers for a series of thought-provoking sessions and working groups on a topical science related theme. The theme for the 2012 Nobel Week Dialogue was The Genetic Revolution and its Impact on Society, a choice partly inspired by the fact that 2012 marks the 50thanniversary of the award of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.

After introductory remarks, Eric Lander, esteemed scientists spoke on  Five Turns of the Double Helix, followed by an on stage interview with James Watson by Matt Ridley. Then Helga Nowotny spoke on  A Social Scientist in the Land of Genomic Promise followed by Steven Chu on The Role of Genomics in Energy and the Environment. This followed panel discussion by imminent scientists. The entire conference and the content has been summarized below:

1. Eric Lander: How Biology Entered The Information Age

Eric Lander was one of the leaders of the effort to sequence the human genome, and has continued to work on various follow on projects through his involvement with the Broad Institute, a leading sequencing center. So, he makes an excellent choice to provide some perspective about how the growing availability of genomes has driven the biological sciences over the last decade.

“How do you ask how to read DNA?” Lander asked. “You ask the master—the cell. The cell is in the business of reading the information in DNA.” Molecular biology and biotechnology developed around the purification and use of the proteins used by the cells themselves to manipulate DNA.

Conceptually, Lander said, the key step was the development of a hierarchal map. Lay out genetic markers on a map, identify the DNA associated with those markers, and then dig down into the actual DNA sequences. The first human genetic map appeared in 1987, and that set the stage for the genome sequencing to kick off in earnest in the 1990s. The final draft was announced in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the Watson and Crick paper.

More detail can be read at:

2. Nowotny-Horizon 1620 and beyond

Nowotny compared the new EU funding strategy, Horizon 2020, to what she called “Horizon 1620″. This was the year which Francis Bacon “sailed through the pillars on knowledge”. Bacon and others promised “the effecting of all things possible”. She cited an important part of this enlightenment era as the belief in progress.

Looking back at the industrial revolution, Nowotny said “it was only when [technology] came together with science that it became the driver that we see today”.

Towards the end of the talk, Nowotny spoke about ethics and promises. Politicians across the world should listen to this wise nugget: “Be careful with promises we make and not to betray them.”

3. Understanding gene environment interaction

In the panel discussions that took place after the main lectures were interesting and added more flavor to the debate.

he moderator, Göran Hansson, posed the question: How far are we from understanding these interactions?

Eric Lander raised a really interesting point that the general public perceive genetics as risk factors of disease. He disagreed with this impression saying “genetics is here to understand mechanism”. It seems that geneticists need to portray as Lander said that “genes and environment works inextricably together”.

Using lung cancer as an example, Lander said that we can understand the genes involved but we need to address the huge environmental factor: smoking. He added that we need to communicate science better to get people to stop smoking and understand this obvious environmental effect.

In some diseases, I thought it was brilliant that this panel of geneticists were willing to question the focus on genetic research. Joe Goldstein said “we have to deal with patients with diseases that have strong familial components”. He cited colon cancer as an example where a colonoscopy is much better than getting your genome sequenced.

If you look at cancers in a population, the hereditary impact varies between 3 and 10%. Using breast cancer as an example, Mary Claire King said that by working with families that are severely affected by the disease, they were able to isolate the genes involved: BRCA1 and the many others found since. She said Europe was better at testing for these mutations but the United States needed to improve. If these mutations are tested in women, these cancers can be prevented. I think this is true for many new technologies involving genetics – governments are slow to adopt them which to me seems short-sighted given the costs involved downstream for treatment.

This short-term focus was also raised by Bert Vogelstein who said that “we, as a society, are so focused on curing these advanced cancers that we don’t see other ways to tame the beast”.

This was such an fascinating discussion. Now that we know so much more about the genetic mechanisms, it seems that looking towards the impact of the environment is more possible. Göran Hansson  summed this up saying “we are probably in for a new era of diagnostics”.

4. Future of Human Biology

There was a strong focus on the continued need for fundamental science during this afternoon’s session, Human Biology: The Great Deal We Don’t Know and How to Discover It.

The worry about reduced funding for fundamental research was evident during each speakers input to the conversation on the future of research on human biology. Taking this a step further, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard said that “we need to know more about general biology”.

The moderator, Bruce Alberts, said that much of the funding for biochemical research is by people who have had these diseases e.g. cancer survivors. This has an adverse impact according to the Editor-in-Chief of Science. He often hears people say: “Why should the public tax money pay for scientists satisfying their curiosity?”

Craig Mello added that those very naive curiosities often result in huge discoveries. He mentioned being in awe of the fact that the genetic code is similar across organisms and finding out that the insulin gene can be read by bacteria. I interviewed him earlier this week and he spoke about this: read here.

“Curiosity is a basic must for scientists” said Nüsslein-Volhard. She recommended that if you’re not curious, don’t do science. Here’s a great formula she gave for good research:

Curisosity + Good Problem + Bit of Smartness = Good Basis for Research

Mello said that the reduction can be blamed on the limited resources we now have. Given the choice between funding research that might get into clinics next year or a long-term project that could revolutionize medicine, review panels are choosing the applied clinic-focused research. He said that funding in the United States is flat despite the increased need to understand the new knowledge available. “This is really unacceptable and it really threatens our ability to do the basic science for the next 10 years”.

Asked how we can change this, Steven Chu said that leaders have to be convinced that you have to make investments into the future. This is happening in the United States according to Chu who used the saying “you don’t eat your seed corn”. Mello added that we need to do a better job at communicating with policy makers and scientists must keep track of the impact of their research.

This is yet another conference where this debate is a hot topic. Every Nobel Laureate and prominent scientist that I have heard speak about this thinks there is a problem with fundamental science funding. However, policy makers in many countries think we need more applied science. Perhaps this is a take home message for policy makers!

5. Genetics and Agriculture

The afternoon stream was a panel session moderated by Matt Ridley, with panellistsDominic BartonTorbjörn Fagerström, Louise FrescoChristiane Nüsslein-Volhard andTikki Pang (Pangestu).

We began with two audience polls, a show of hands proposed by Ridley: how many people are in favour of GM foods? An overall majority in favour. Louise Fresco suggested a poll on how many are optimistic we can feed the world in 2050, again a majority. These two questions highlight the main themes of the discussion, that of the base issue of GM acceptance, and the need for which GM will be required to feed a growing population.

Fresco opened by stating the GM debate by highlighting that most of the GM work has gone into herbicide resistance, which ironically has generated the most resistance in another area – society. In recent years Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (Bt) has had a positive effect on health and ebnvironment, it has allowed small farmers in India and China to reduce use of pesticides, with a positive effect on health and environment. Can we extend that same duel benefit to other crops?

However Fagerström raised the more fundamental issue, the question of why is there this resistance in society? Especially given the empirical support for GM not being a problem is very strong. How did we end up here? Nüsslein-Volhard believes the issue is rooted in a resistance against science, rather than GM itself. Why do people not trust scientists? Why are politicians inclined to embrace the more fluffy ‘green’ organisations rather than scientific manifestos? The problem is that there is deeply rooted mis-trust brought about by a lack of education. I could liken it to the issues raised by Helga Nowotny this morning on the fulfilment of promise – genomic technologies meeting a pre-genomic society. After all, we have the genomes for several crops now (e.g. rice) so we actually know what we are changing.

The other issue is that in modern, western farms, farmers are paid whether their crop fails or succeeds; they just don’t need to care about more efficient production. In fact, if they increase production – the surplus just floods (and destablises) the developing countries. However, local action on governments in countries where these technologies are being developed negatively effects the prospects for these products in these developing countries.

Fresco highlighted that in discussing GM people don’t go into the details; there is too much generalisation. Focus on specifics, like perhaps the potato. We’re not talking about wide-crosses here (i.e. jellyfish genes in vegetables), but in fact practise sys-genesis, the back crossing with ancestral Andean types of potato that are resistant to phytophthora blight. We should show that GM can be close to the original, rather than some mutant chimera. Torbjörn agrees, and suggests that GM should be judged crop by crop like anything else. It’s like saying you are against electricity, just because some electrical items can be bad!

Another problem is that societies that most object to GM do not readily feel the tangible benefits of GM. Is the a comparable objection to GM cotton that we wear, or the idea of fast growing GM trees, or transgenic mosquitoes that don’t vector diseases such as Dengue. When we feel the advantage, so our perceptions of ‘risk’ diminish?

All in all, it was a productive event and provided a balanced point of view from scientific perspective and generally too.

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