One of genomics' venerable visionaries, Harvard genetics professor George M. Church, amused attendees at the fourth annual meeting of the DOE’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., last week, with a photo of a purchase order from his lab in 1980, for a couple of DNA snippets 10 base pairs long, costing $6,000 a pop. Nowadays, he pointed out, “$500 will give you 15 million base pairs.”
During his keynote, Church breezed through the highlights of his stunning career, and the equally stunning progress of the genomics field, dubbing the ever-accelerating speed at which genomic sequences can be decoded “Moore’s law on steroids.”
As a graduate student in 1978, Church synthesized the first artificial plasmid, which contained only 4.6 kilobases. By contrast, his lab announced last year--somewhat unconventionally, before peer review--that they’d assembled the first artificial ribosome.
Back in 1984, Church helped develop the first method for genomic sequencing, and initiated the human genome project. Recently, he discovered organisms that thrive on antibiotics .
But clearly Church’s pet venture is the Personal Genome Project , which he launched in 2006. Volunteers, of whom Church is one, allow their genomic, medical and environmental information to be made public, facilitating research on personalized medicine. Last week, the project was expanded from 10 volunteers to 100,000. Within two days, 10,000 volunteers had lined up for entrance exams. “But we need more,” Church said.
Another genomics star, Craig Venter, also held forth at JGI, taking the audience on a virtual whirlwind tour of the research at his facility in La Jolla, the J. Craig Venter Institute, from the cultivation of microbes that turn coal into methane, to the conversion of one bacterial species to another.
The former Celera Genomics founder and president also just launched a new leg of his oceanic microbe-mining project, the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition. The research vessel, Venter’s own 95-foot yacht, the Sorcerer II set sail March 19, from San Diego’s Shelter Island Marina.
Microbes are the future of new gene discovery, Venter said. “If you’re looking for new mammalian genes, stop. They’ve basically all been found.”