The Genomic Genie and Its Promise to Both Science
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
The Institute for Genomic Research
September 20, 1998
Good morning. This session focuses on a number of specific
techniques, new approaches, and technologies in genomics.
I'll be stepping back from the specifics, rising above
the waves a bit, and taking a longer view toward the
My talk is entitled "The Genomic Genie and Its Promise
to Both Science and Society." Some might say the genie
is already out of the bottle. Others might say we're
still rubbing the lamp and waiting for results.
In either case, we know that this genie holds great
promise for both science and society.
The talk will have three parts:
- I will sketch some broad themes that will provide
a context for looking at this topic; broad implications
- I'll give you a snapshot of genomics and NSF;
- Finally, I'll highlight a significant implication
of genomics for climate and health (focusing on
my own research on cholera and the applications
of the Vibrio cholerae sequence in solving a serious
international public health problem, namely pandemic
cholera, a current problem in all countries of
the African continent and much of the Middle and
A first broad theme links genomics with a new way
of framing an approach to understanding the earth's
ecosystems,"biocomplexity," an area targeted for fundraising
by NSF in the future.
Genomics has enormous potential to help us with biodiversity
and further, with biocomplexity.
To my mind, the concept of biocomplexity reaches beyond
biodiversity. When we speak of sustaining biodiversity,
we mean primarily maintaining the plant and animal
diversity of the planet, a very important goal.
Biocomplexity, however, embraces a deeper significance.
It is not enough to explore and chronicle the enormous
diversity of the earth's ecosystems.
We need to reach beyond, to discover complex chemical,
biological, and social interactions in our planet's
systems. Ultimately, we aim to trace the principles
of sustainability--a vital goal.
The Great Barrier Reef off Australia serves as a metaphor
for biocomplexity, or even, closer to home, the reefs
here off Florida.
Chemical signaling going on between the lifeforms within
the water is so complex and so beautifully orchestrated,
that if the signals could be transformed into sound,
we would hear a spectacular symphony.
If we would hope to understand this enormous complexity,
we will need to reach across diverse disciplines.
It will take biologists, ecologists, physical scientists,
computer scientists, engineers, and those in the behavioral
sciences to begin to write the symphonic score, if
you will, that is coded by life and its environment.
This absolutely necessary collaboration will bring
strength and insight to our work. It also means we
will develop a common language to speak across boundaries.
We must also become more comfortable with dialogue
outside the realm of science. I am referring to the
importance of relaying to the larger public the value
and contributions of science to society.
The challenge is to become more focused, yet more integrated
in our research. No problems exist in isolation, whether
they are scientific, social, or technical. Communication
is key in this web.
This brings us to a second broad theme where genome
analysis provides a superb illustration: the blurring
of the boundaries between basic and applied research.
It even gives us a good illustration of the false
dichotomy between the two.
The most fundamental discoveries in the area of genetics
can now lead to almost immediate advances in medicine
and economic development.
As all of us are well aware, genomics is affecting
the realm of commerce. Science Magazine noted
last month [8/14/98] that the "new science of genomics
is forcing some of the world's largest companies to
reinvent themselves...." and leading to a new economic
sector, the life sciences.
One of our challenges will be to encourage both the
commercial utilization of research and the sharing
of research tools and results.
Genomics is, in fact, already a case study of this:
- Biologists are working with engineers to improve
technology, with chemists to design drugs, and
with mathematicians and computer scientists to
develop algorithms to ask broader questions and
get better answers, faster.
- Genome technology already meets society in the
areas of forensics, health care, and ultimately,
in the realm of reproductive biology.
Beyond work on the human genome, genomics has much
potential for progress in other areas-health and the
environment, for example...specifically the promise
of genomics for agriculture and food safety.
Concerning all of these applications, it will be essential
for us to communicate more and better with society
at large about the meaning and value of what we do.
A third theme highlights the shift from structural
to functional genomics.
We're in the midst of a change in focus from structural
to functional genomics. The spotlight is widening
from a single gene to studying all the genes of an
organism at once.
We hear all the time that once many genomes are mapped,
biology will be transformed. Many do not fully realize
what this entails.
Genetic sequence data can help us understand functions
on scales from the molecular to the cellular to the
organismal. We are beginning to link sequence to function-an
approach permeating all of biology.
In this same way, a fourth broad theme comes to
light: the role of genomics in advancing another major
frontier: information technology.
Speaking generally, the virtual explosion in diverse
information systems really begins to seem a new "Age
I think of the 15th and 16th centuries, when nations
sent ships to circumnavigate the earth. While bringing
wealth to the nations that funded the voyages, much
new knowledge was also brought home.
Today, computational power, instant communication,
vast databases, and extensive analytical capability
have brought us to yet another age of circumnavigation.
We can now, however, explore the universe with far
more powerful tools.
In fact, our tools for computing and communication
are triggering explorations of a magnitude not even
imagined a few decades ago.
Genomics is certainly on the crest of this great wave.
We are amassing vast amounts of sequence data, and
our current computational and communication tools
will not suffice to compare entire genomes with others.
Genomics itself will drive the invention of new such
tools for data mining. Still, a challenge will be
to ensure access across the board to these huge data
One example comes from phylogeny. New theories (New
York Times, 4/14/98) hint tantalizingly at the
possibility of finding the "ancestral genome." Yet,
now that we can map the entire genome of a microbe,
we find that entire groups of genes may have been
transferred "horizontally" between kingdoms.
Rather than a tree of life amongst microbes, some conceive,
rather, of a phylogenetic net.
We could not even begin to unravel this complexity
without cutting-edge computational tools.
The case is the same for ecology-genomics also sheds
light on how microbes work together in the soil or
in water. Symbiosis with other organisms can be understood
by using the tools of molecular genetics.
Turning now from the thematic to the specific, let
me say a word or two about how the National Science
Foundation fits into this.
1. National Plant Genome Initiative:
NSF is pleased to have a part in helping to move genomics
forward. We received a $40 million congressional appropriation
for plant genome research in FY 1998. The result has
been to accelerate the sequencing of the Arabidopsis
genome, which should be completed by the end of the
NSF has played a lead role in this multinational effort
since its inception. NSF is also participating in
an international effort to sequence the rice genome.
Part of the support also went to functional genomics
and to strengthen the infrastructure for plant genomics
research. One such example is our "virtual centers"
program, in which several institutions collaborate
to conduct research on plant genomes.
We hope to continue with these activities in future
The new work builds upon existing genome research supported
by NSF. The emphasis there is to accelerate understanding
of basic biological processes in plants, stressing
economically significant species such as corn.
2. NSF and the Internet:
Not to be overlooked in our support of genomics is
NSF's key role in developing the Internet, beginning
with NSFNET in 1985, which has provided a key tool
The agency involved commercial partners early on, which
later smoothed the evolution of the Internet into
a largely private concern.
NSF is now supporting the very High-speed Backbone
Network Service (vBNS), a research network to connect
supercomputer centers and links worldwide. Biologists
can use these resources to collaborate globally. One
example is the virtual centers I have already mentioned.
3. NSF and interdisciplinary research:
All of this comes back to NSF's special role in interdisciplinary
work. This serves as a kind of hub for all the disciplinary
spokes-a role we'll play even more emphatically in
the future. Right now, we're developing two overarching
themes that will help to pull this all together.
KDI: The first is KDI-Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence.
This is NSF's broad effort to derive knowledge from
access to information.
Its aim is to create networked systems that can make
all kinds of knowledge available to anyone at any
time. KDI spans all the disciplines that NSF supports.
KDI encompasses genomics, including functional genomics.
The explosion of genome data offers an unprecedented
opportunity to understand living systems.
LEE: Our second cross-disciplinary theme is Life and
Earth's Environment (LEE). It draws heavily on genomics
to explore biological diversity.
Genomics will transform two new scientific fields:
- Molecular ecology-enabling the identification
of organisms directly in the environment;
- and molecular phylogenetics-assessing evolutionary
relationships through highly conserved genes.
NSF's Life in Extreme Environments (LEXEN) initiative,
under the LEE umbrella, will target environments where
some organisms live that may be particularly useful
to understanding the evolution of life.
My own area of research in climate and health also
serve as an example for how genomics will have-indeed,
already has had-a significant impact.
In conclusion, I'll return to the image in the title
of my speech. The Genomic Genie holds great promise
for us. It is our common challenge to pursue this
work in a reasoned and ethical way.
It is also our work to educate both the students and
our broader societies to be able to put this new and
wonderful tool to the most appropriate and wisest
At the same time, it is our task to build the bridges
between disciplines that will be the foundation for
future discovery. All of this will shape the promise
genomics holds for both science and society.