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Entries in gene sequencing (3)


Juan Enriquez at SFI

"Are Humans Optimal?"


  • Historically on the planet there have been several hominins existing at a time. Right now humans are the only species of hominins.
    • Typically when there is only one species, that is a sign of impending extinction.
  • The difference between humans and Neanderthals is less than 0.004% on the genomic level.
    • Differences are in sperm, testes, smell and skin
  • There was an experiment in Russia to try and breed domesticated wild foxes. They took only the friendliest foxes and bred them amongst each other. Within a few generations they got tame and were worthy of being pets (more on that here).
  • We can now sequence and acquire genetic data 3x quicker than our capacity to store it. We’ve sequenced about 10,000 human genes today. We will start to find more differences soon.
  • Life is imperfectly transmitted code.
  • We can now build just mouth teeth (or human teeth with stem cells from a lost tooth). We can build an ear, a bladder, a trachea.
  • Homo evolutis:
    • For better or worse, we’re beginning to control our own evolution
    • This is “unnatural selection or actual intelligent design”
    • We have to live with the consequences, whether they be good or bad.
    • So far, using these technologies we have taken ourselves out of the food chain and doubled lifespans. In this respect, it’s been good for us so far.
  • While we conventionally speak about how great the digital revolution has been, the revolution in life sciences is and will be magnitudes greater.
  • Co-founded Synthetic Genomics with J. Craig Venter (One of the first to have sequenced the human genome)
    • Synthetic Genomics has developed a cell built that can operate like a computer system. It’s a cell that executes life code.
    • It may be possible to reprogram a species to become another species.
    • It’s like a software that makes its own hardware.
    • Algae is the best scalable production systems for energy development in a constrained world.
  • “We are evolving ourselves.” In science, “there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when everything happens.” (a questioner in the audience pointed out this quote comes from Lenin).
  • Q: “Do we have secular stagnation?”
    • Enriquez: A resounding no. Today there are people who are smart, creative, with scale and ambition. Lots of great things are happening in the sciences. We are as advanced as ever, and increasingly so. 1 problem is that with technology, our interest in sex different than it used to be, and sex is not keeping the developed world population moving upwards fast enough.



TED Talk with Barry Schuler on Genomics 101

Genomics today is one of those fields where we can witness the Innovator's Dilemma unfold in realtime.  I am particularly intrigued by genetic sequencing for a number of reasons.  The idea that we are simply complex programs with a coding system that has double the inputs of a binary computer system has major consequences in terms of religion, philosophy, and most visibly, health.  This is heavy stuff for a former philosophy major!  Further, the "anti-evolutionists" have a big problem with this reality, because it willingly confirms and implies we are of the same fiber as every living substance on Earth, have thus evolved from the Great Apes, and are already developing the capacity to manipulate the structure of our internal code.  Can we once again call this "debate" over?

In reality, this is a good, not bad thing!  With the understanding of how our most basic system works, we can officially launch into an entirely new era of medical diagnostics and treatment.  While medical costs have been soaring in the United States to the tune of a decade and a half of double-digit growth, genomics, once wildly expensive, holds the key to generating enormous cost and treatment efficiencies.  With knowledge of an individual's genome, we can came up with better treatments for each individual, skip many of the painfully unnecessary diagnostics, and develop a personalized course of action, all at a lower total cost.  

Plus, as an added bonus, we can refine our Pinot Noir grapes to taste as we want it, grow where we want it, how we want it.  I'll let Barry Schuler take over from here on what genomics is doing for us today, and what we can expect to see tomorrow (here's the link in case the embed doesn't work):


Links for Thought -- March 9, 2012

Cost of Gene Sequencing Falls, Raising Hopes for Medical Advances (NY Times) -- This is a narrative I will continue to follow from both a science and investment standpoint.  We are at a very real tipping point in terms of the impact the Human Genome Project will have on our lives.  Ultimately deflation in the price of mapping the genome will help drive down the cost of medical treatment.  Just wait (and also read my post on the Innovator's Dilemma to create your own mental model for how this will play out).  

Selling Shovels in a Gold Rush (Leigh Drogan) -- Leigh Drogan, founder of Estimize, offers great insight on how some of those who prosper most from the present tech boom will be the ones who facilitate the boom along the way.  This is precisely how Levi Strauss made himself one of the most successful beneficiaries of the California Gold Rush.  

Warren Buffett: All that Glitters Is Tungsten (Benzinga) -- What's rarer than Rare Earths? Tungsten.  The most successful investor in the world, Warren Buffett has now taken a stake in a major producer via Berkshire's ownership of Iscar.  Tungsten is my favorite commodity investment and one I have been following for some time, as it has unique traits compared to most ordinary commodities.  Good to see Mr. Buffett give his implicit endorsement!

New Math Will Drive a U.S. Manufacturing Comeback (HBR Blog) -- HBR lays out the math behind why the U.S. is experiencing a manufacturing renaissance, and why this trend will accelerate over the coming years.  This is a highly compelling argument, substantiated by a good look at the numbers.  If the prediction is in fact correct, it bodes amazingly well for the U.S. economy.

Consumer Price Index (CPI): Comprehensive In-depth Analysis (ValueWalk) -- The CPI is controversial to many, for a variety of reasons. Here Kim Palacios at ValueWalk takes an excellent look at some of the ways in which the CPI is not properly constructed for the modern economy.  Substitution, sharing, and auction-based pricing all have serious consequences for the broader economic price level.  

Speculation Blamed for Global Food Price Weirdness (Wired) -- Yes Futures are an important tool for commodity consumers and producers to hedge their exposure, but, these days several crucial commodities seem inundated with speculators who are accumulating long-term positions.  This is leading to a disconnect in the true supply and demand equilibrium.  Food is far too important arena to allow such gamesmanship to influence everyday prices.

The Illusion of Understanding Success (Why We Reason) -- This is a great write-up on JK Rowling, the wildly successful offer of the Harry Potter series.  Rowling was in a state of depression before a twist of fate sent her life on a rapid ascent to stardom.  Too often society builds after-the-fact narratives of success as if someone started on the bottom left of a chart and ended at the top right without any bumps along the way.  This is a theme Daniel Kahneman has spelled out nicely, and one I will take a deeper look at sometime soon.  In the meantime, give this one a read.

Who Has the Moral Highground in A's-Giants Dispute (Baseball Nation) -- The Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants are in the middle of a territorial dispute.  Tied into this fight is some interesting baseball history and more general questions about fairness.