Leading geneticist heralds digital age of biology
THE LINE separating the digital world and the biological world is blurring and may soon fade away. It will lead to a time when our personal biology will be transmitted across the internet at the speed of light, the geneticist Dr Craig Venter has said.
“We are in waht I call the digital age of biology,” he told a packed out audience assembled in the examination hall on the Trinity College campus, an event taking place as part of the ongoing EuroScience Open Forum based at the Convention Centre Dublin.
He pictured a time in the not too distant future when digitised biological samples collected at an influenza outbreak could be transmitted to a laboratory and analysed to identify a vaccine target.
The result would in turn be transmitted to vaccine manufacturers around the world to stop a pandemic before it could start. “This is biology moving at the speed of light,” Dr Venter said.
His talk, entitled: What is Life?, was a reprise of a series of lectures first given in 1943 at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies by physicist Erwin Schrödinger.
Although a physicist, Schrödinger delivered an lecture on the processes that control life, talks that later went on to inspire a generation of biologists.
One such biologist attended yesterday’s talk, Nobel Prize winner James Watson. Also present was the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who in a piece of interlocking history attended last night’s lecture at Trinity just as his predecessor of 1943 had, one Eamon de Valara.
Dr Venter opened his address by declaring it was a considerable honour to be asked to deliver the presentation. He talked about the lectures and their impact, pointing out that the notion of a DNA code was first used by Schrödinger in his description of a code script.
He repeatedly returned to his theme of the interchangability of the digital and biological worlds.
“Life is a DNA software system,” he said. “If you change the software you change the species.”
The DNA itself is an analogue code, in turn converted into digital codes that in turn delivered the proteins which make things happen in the cell.
“I call the process digitising biology,” he said. The DNA is the software of life, while the proteins are the hardware of life, mechanistic entities, natures robots.
The lecture ended and James Watson, in the past antagoinistic about Dr Venter’s work on the human genome, rose to make his comments. We knew so much more about the genetic blueprint than 60 years ago when he was a young researcher, he said.
And depsite the connections drawn with computers he said: “I hope there is still a role for biologists.” “I want to congratulate Craig for a very beautiful lecture.”
“Seventy years on from the Schrödinger lectures it was an occasion to come here and hear Craig Venter,” the Taoiseach told The Irish Times afterwards.
“This was way beyond my understanding I have to say,” he acknowledged. “But I did pick up a few things from it.”
At the original lecture De Valara ordered his entire cabinet to attent but Mr Kenny made no such demand. “I didn’t get all the cabinet here like Mr de Velara did in his time,” but his setting up of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies important.
“Obviously the challenges are as great now as theyw ere then.”