AsianScientist (Feb. 16, 2018) – Here at Asian Scientist, we’ve just released our January 2018 print magazine on deep technologies, featuring disruptive innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition software and blockchains. Out of the three I’ve mentioned, blockchain is arguably the most obscure.
AI has woven in and out of mainstream consciousness since Steven Spielberg’s titular film in 2001, while facial recognition software recently got a signal boost with the iPhone X’s biometric unlocking system. But chances are, you’ve never seen a blockbuster movie about blockchain or held in your hands a blockchain-enabled device.
That’s not surprising. For the majority of the past decade, blockchains have been almost exclusively used as an encrypted, distributed ledger for virtual currencies. By now you must have heard of Bitcoin—this was the first major cryptocurrency to be developed on a blockchain, and what the blockchain does is keep a secure, permanent record of every Bitcoin ever transacted.
At its core, blockchain is a protocol for storing, retrieving, verifying and exchanging information, and I wrote about six different ways blockchain is being used beyond the tracking of cryptocurrencies. Recently, I stumbled upon an article about combining blockchain with the field of biology, and being a biologist by training, I was rather curious about the implications of this unlikely pairing.
A sequence of unexpected events
All life is made from code—DNA—written as a sequence of As, Cs, Gs and Ts in endless variations. We now have a means to unravel this code, reading it letter by letter using DNA sequencing. The technique was first developed in the 1970s, but back then it was extremely expensive and unwieldy. The technology has since improved, and the cost of sequencing the human genome has come down significantly, making it possible for you and me to get hold of the very instruction manual used by every cell in our bodies.
By analyzing whole genomes, scientists can glean information about ancestry and even trace the roots of human evolution. Researchers can also comb through genomes to find mutations that predispose us to particular diseases, which could lead to the development of cures. Genomes thus contain a wealth of information with valuable applications. So how does blockchain come into the picture?
As I mentioned earlier, blockchain is a means to store, retrieve, verify and exchange information securely. Once sequenced, the genome is information, so blockchain is well positioned to serve as an immutable genome database. A new company, Nebula Genomics, founded by the renowned geneticist George Church, thus aims to record human genomes on its blockchain. But more than that, what Nebula Genomics seeks to do is grant individuals ownership over their genomic data.
My genome, my terms and conditions
At present, when companies offer genome sequencing services directly to consumers, the person requesting the service gets a report, but relinquishes ownership of how the genomic data is used. This means that the company providing the genome sequencing service can sell the data to research institutes or pharmaceutical companies for a profit, and the person whom the genome belongs to has no claim to any share of the proceeds from the sale of this information.
Nebula Genomics’ platform thus aims to grant individuals control over who can access their genomic data, even allowing people to monetize their genomes by negotiating directly with data buyers on the terms of access. What this does is create an economic model that incentivizes people to get their genomes sequenced.
According to a white paper released by Nebula genomics, only two percent of people it surveyed had had their genomes sequenced. On the other hand, the biomedical industry requires large genome datasets before it can make meaningful conclusions about disease and therapy. Nebula Genomics’ strategy, if it takes off, might therefore act as a bridge between research needs and consumer motivation.
But at the end of the day, ‘trading’ genomes on blockchains is just another example of how technologies are converging to create new ways of doing things. AI now sifts through genetic information, data is being stored in DNA, and gene editing is slowly approaching the ‘copy and paste’ precision of word processing software. As the lines between digital code and the code of life continue to blur, who knows what else might be possible in the future? Only time will tell…
This article is from a monthly column called Hacking a PhD. Click here to see the other articles in this series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.