The Big DNA Letdown

Thoughts on the (so far) overhype of genetic sequencing.

I think that there are going to be huge breakthroughs in health and longevity, but our understanding of genetics is currently much too dismal for them to come from DNA analysis in the near term.

My understanding is that the DNA is a recipe, not a blueprint. And while even with a blueprint of a house, the final product is still dependent on the carpenter, it is at least specified. A recipe can have much more varied outcomes, depending on the cook, and the available resources and ingredients.

13 thoughts on “The Big DNA Letdown”

  1. I believe it is very useful for getting a first clue: do a diff between the DNA of people with a certain illness and the standard sequence.

  2. @Martijn,

    The problem is that it seems that there are too many non-genetic contributions to the development process to say that a given genetic difference actually matters.

    There might be 500 harmless differences and one ‘bad’ one, so how do you find the actual difference?

    Or worse, two people might have a ‘bad’ gene, but only one expresses the disease because the other one wasn’t exposed to the trigger. (Say a genetic weakness that makes you prone to lung cancer, but only if you smoke.)

  3. We’re just not that smart. It’s very easy to come up with enough complexity to go beyond our limits.

    This is the point of the concept of the ‘humble programmer.’ Problems need to be broken down to bite size. We need abstractions to come to grips with realities. Even if an abstraction turns out to be useful, we need to always remember that it’s not the thing itself.

    I think we are learning more all the time and shouldn’t be so concerned about the over hype which is a standard human response. Well, unless somebody is asking you to fund it 😉

    It’s also good to realize the difference between machines and something beyond machines. The universe is more than just a clockwork set in motion (although it’s forgivable to believe such.)

  4. Gene sequencing opened up the field of epigenetics which involves not only what genes are present, but how, when and under what conditions the genes are expressed. Every cell in an organism has the same DNA, but the genes encoded in the DNA are expressed differently in every cell based on a myriad of internal and external conditions. Thus, things turned out to be enormously more complicated than first thought.

  5. I think a better question is: why was it so overhyped?

    The answer is: they needed $3 billion.

    Now compare that to space “science”. The next Mars rover (exactly how many do we need? can’t you send at least *one* to the Moon?) will cost about the same, and yet no-one need hype the hell out of it, their budget is almost assured.

    I don’t think anyone can seriously say the human genome project wasn’t worth the money, it’s just a shame that the hype was needed to get it.

  6. Protein folding — being able to predict the 3D shape of a protein from the amino acid sequence — would be a lot more immediate use. But the public mind isn’t prepared to accept “protein folding” as a magical incantation. “DNA,” on the other hand, is used as magic in innumerable movies, TV shows, and comic books. Anything to do with DNA is already overhyped.

  7. Well…if you want to criticize the press and politicians for hysterical overreaction, go on ahead, but let us keep in mind they’re just like that. They’re always like that. Indeed, this particular criticism is just a hard swing of the pendulum back in the other direction, and is equally wrong. The war is always just about to be won without a shot or an imminent catastrophe, science and technology are always about to create Instant Paradise (just add water and humans), or just about to destroy the planet, rinse and repeat. 500 years ago these same guys predicted the return of the Messiah every third year. Nothing changes about their hysteria.

    Basic science is basic science. By definition it’s a long and rocky road to a widget in your hand (or test or therapy in the clinic). Really, I’m having a hard time thinking of any basic science advance that was followed within 10 years by a “cornucopia” of technological applications hitting the market. Even atomic fission, proved in 1939, and subject to the greatest and most intense development effort ever, only paid off in a limited sense with civilian technological applications — nuclear power plants — in 1954. BB and S made the first germanium transistor in 1947, but transistorized electronics didn’t really take off until the late 60s and early 70s. Heck, the fastest expansion I can think of in recent history is the World Wide Web: a mere 11 years from Berners-Lee’s first Web server (1990) to when first turned a profit (2001), say.

    Anyway, if you read the Times article linked, further down it’s pretty clear that substantial benefits have indeed come out of the sequencing. It has already been a game-changer; but like most basic scientific advances, its first impact has been in applied science, and only slowly is it starting to change technology. But it will come, no one doubts that.

    As an aside, without doubt the technique of sequencing per se has already had substantial effects; one has only to think of DNA analysis in the judicial system, for example. There are also already thousands of cancer patients who have benefited from the ability to do SNP analyses on tumor DNA and predict much more accurately the aggressiveness of a particular individual tumor. More here, for example.

    And in a way reminiscent of spaceflight “spinoff,” the technology of sequencing got a boost in cost-effectiveness and efficiency as a by-product of the intense effort to sequence a human genome quickly. So by any measure, the gigabucks were well spent, I think. The fact that the investment hasn’t paid off in exactly the way the hucksters of the 90s said it would in their prospectus isn’t new. Nothing ever does. We certainly don’t use computers or the Internet in 2010 the way politicians selling us the ideas in the 70s or 80s predicted we would. Call it the “Tomorrowland” paradox: when you visit “Tomorrowland” in Disneyworld, everything seems either amazing (if you’re looking at an exhibit created now predicting the world 20 years off) or amazingly cheesy and dumb (if you’re looking at an exhibit created 20 years ago predicting the world today).

  8. I suspect that DNA’s value has been oversold. It’s main use seems to be statistical – sequencing can tell you what you’re at greater risk for, but it will not predict when cancer will occur, or whether your child will be autistic. It may also save people from adverse or useless drug side-effects. Certainly if we can regenerate telomeres without igniting tumors that would be extremely beneficial, but that is really a separate issue from sequencing.

    It’s greatest value may be that it leads us to deeper study of adjacent areas of the atomic system of the cell. DNA, RNA, enzymes, ribosomes, microfilaments, and proteins all interact in countless quantum computations every millisecond within the cell. The real secret of life is probably some border-of-chaos emergent order in the whole system, for which DNA likely offers the equivalent of an OS.

  9. By definition it’s a long and rocky road to a widget in your hand

    Also, it’s difficult to predict which widget because it’s done by people all motivated to go in their own direction.

  10. I remember years ago reading articles about how the laser hadn’t lived up to all the hype. (Yes, I’m showing my age here.)

  11. Roga: re quantum computations…

    You may be interested in looking up links on recent work on the mechanism of light collection in photosynthesis. It turns out this is an inherently quantum mechanical process. The proteins holding photosynthetic pigments are apparently optimized by evolution to arrange the pigments so they remain in an entangled quantum state for a surprisingly long time after absorbing a photon, despite the tendency of thermal fluctuations to cause decoherence. This is said to explain why the energy transport to the photosynthetic reaction centers is so rapid and efficient.

  12. The photosynthetic technique for transferring energy from one molecular system to another should make any short-list of Mother Nature’s spectacular accomplishments. If we can learn enough to emulate this process, we might be able to create artificial versions of photosynthesis that would help us effectively tap into the sun as a clean, efficient, sustainable and carbon-neutral source of energy.

    Imagine if we could get nearly 100% conversion of solar to electric and it was cheap!

    Given it’s quantum nature is this something that could have developed incrementally? If not, you can see how the ID crowd might see the hand of god.

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