When Genomes Meet iPhones

QuestionWhat excites you most in science today?

Richard Dawkins: I suppose in my own field of biology it would be molecular genetics. It has enormous potential. It's advancing at an extremely rapid rate, coupled with computer science, which is also advancing at an extremely rapid rate. And the two are genuinely coupled; that's no accident. Moore's Law in the world of computer science states that computer power measured in various ways increases exponentially, and its doubling time is something like eighteen months.

There's another law which I've coined Hodgkin's Law, which says that sequencing genomes, the power to read genomes, increases exponentially, and the doubling time is not quite as fast as that; it's more like twenty seven months. But Hodgkin's Law and Moore's Law are related because genetic sequencing is -- the technology is very dependent upon computers. And so part of what has fed into the increase in the rate of -- in the increase in the power to sequence genomes has been the increase in computer power, which is Moore's Law.

So the two together are rendering our world ever stranger ever faster. And the Internet as we now know it would have totally astounded me if -- when I first started using computers in the 1960s, I dimly thought that something like the Internet, mass communication, might come about. But I never thought it would be anything like as powerful as it is. I would have been just blown over backwards if somebody had suddenly plunked me in front of a modern -- pushed me forward in time to 2009 and showed me a modern computer and the modern Internet connection. The same thing is happening and is going to happen to biology with respect to genome sequencing. And it's going to become possible to sequence the genome of an individual of any species for very little money, very fast. And that's going to open up enormous vistas for biological research.

And for medicine, because it means that, for example, doctors, instead of prescribing a sort of generic treatment for the disease you've got, for an average person, will prescribe the particular treatment that you as an individual need because of the particular fingerprint of genes that you've got. And that's going to be a radical change in medicine. In biological research it means that we can just sequence the genome of any species we like very quickly. Biologists of the future may be able to catch an animal or plant in the wild, stick a probe into it and immediately read out off a sort of iPhone dial its genome. This would be an astonishing leap in research power 

Question: How close do you think we are to this ability?

Richard Dawkins: Well, it's becoming -- it's coming closer all the time. It's already possible to sequence a genome for a few -- I forget how -- I forget what it is -- but I mean it's a manageable number of dollars. It's still a lot, but by 2050 it'll be possible to sequence the genome of an individual for probably tens of dollars. And that would be quite an extraordinary state of affairs.

Recorded on: October 21, 2009

 

 

Though Richard Dawkins has earned fame for explicating the human past, what currently excites him most in science is the prospect of a future where accessing one’s genetic information is as easy as calling a friend on an iPhone.

“Acoustic tweezers” use sound waves to levitate bits of matter

The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.

Kondo and Okubo, Jpn. J. Appl. Phys., 2021.
Surprising Science
  • Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
  • Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
  • Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Keep reading Show less

Cockatoos teach each other the secrets of dumpster diving

Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.

Surprising Science
  • If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
  • A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
  • But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
  • Keep reading Show less

    CT scans of shark intestines find Nikola Tesla’s one-way valve

    Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

    Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
    Surprising Science
    • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
    • The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
    • The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
    Keep reading Show less

    Godzilla and mushroom clouds: How the first postwar nuclear tests made it to the silver screen

    The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.

    Culture & Religion

    As I sat in a darkened cinema in 1998, mesmerised and unnerved by the opening nuclear bomb explosions that framed the beginning of Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, it felt like I was watching the most expensive special effect in history.

    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast