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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


The Genomic Genie and Its Promise to Both Science and Society

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
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 horizon.

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 for genomics;

  • 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 Far East).

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 of Exploration."

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 sets.

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 year 2000.

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 years.

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 for genomics.

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 uses.

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.



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