A Nobel weekend in Stockholm…

[This post was restored from a WayBackWhen archive. It was originally posted to a blog called ‘The Gene Gym” that began life on the Nature Network in 2010, and then moved to Spekrum’s SciLogs platform.]

On Saturday morning I’ll be rising at a hideously early hour to board the first of two flights that will (eventually) bear me on my merry way to Stockholm. I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of the blog team covering the Nobel Week Dialogue 2012, a new annual conference that will form part of the week of events leading up to the Nobel Prizes. I’m a big fan of conferences, I’ve lost count of the number I’ve been to over the years, but often classify them into two camps:

1. Specialist conferences: where I’ve gone to strut my academic stuff and watch others within my research community strut theirs – and when off the dance floor, we also listen to each other talk; and,

2. Geek/fan conferences, where you go immerse yourself with kindred spirits who share your interests, or where throw yourself into something new to learn and experience.

It’s a subtle distinction, I know, given the large number of fellow ‘specialists’ I also encounter at fan conferences, but the less said about those Star Wars/Trek conventions the better. I’m going to put the Nobel Week Dialogue in my fan conference partition, because I think I will be amongst kindred spirits who are all eager to explore the what on earth the genomic revolution means in today’s society.

‘Big Data’ has been the buzz word for some years now, partly because in the past five years we’ve generated more data that the entirety of human history, but how can we realise the promise of such technologies to advance medicine, agriculture and the environment? It’ll take a concomitant adaptation of all the other institutions of society too, and I don’t know what’s trickier? Science has had a head start in the game, but policy makers, ethicists and business leaders are going to have to get caught up, lest the promise and investment become a purely academic exercise.

I’m certainly not attending as any kind of ‘expert’, such as there can be any ‘experts’ in this BIG subject, but this conference is a dialogue between leaders of several ‘big data’ fields, scientists, policy makers, thinkers and interested members of society, and I count myself amongst several of those. I want to know, I’m genuinely curious, and I wonder who really has a grip on it all? When I know, you will, because I’ll be writing about it. I’ll also be cross-posting some of my posts over the weekend, but also take some time to check out the work of the other bloggers covering the conference on the conference blog.

The conference wil be live-streamed too, and whilst you’re waiting, look at the participants – the meta-CV of all these heads is mind-boggling!

I’ve copied my first, introductory, post below. Next stop, Stockholm.

Credit: © Nobel Media AB


I have been an active research scientist in bacterial genetics for over a decade, and a science blogger for about four years, with much of my research and writing focusing on various aspects of the lifestyles (and DNA) of bacteria. Yet in all the many hours I’ve devoted to staring at Gs, As, Ts and Cs of DNA on a screen, I’ve never personally made use of the information to understand my own genome – something I’ve been increasingly interested to investigate.

It seems an odd admission; I’ve been an early adopter of every other nascent technology – both for personal and research use – but I guess the major reason for not investigating my own genome is the question: can we really understand it yet? So I’m quite excited to have an opportunity to visit Stockholm (for the first time) and attend the Nobel Week Dialogue. The 2012 Nobel prizes marks 50 years since the 1962 prize was awarded to James WatsonFrancis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for their ‘discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material’; or as they once put it – (discovering) ‘the secret of life’. It is on this theme that the Nobel Week Dialogue will focus, bringing together a broad range of scientists, thinkers and policy makers to examine the genetic revolution and its impact on society.

I feel extremely fortunate to have worked in molecular sciences over the past decade. The first working draft of the human genome was completed during my first year in graduate school. The race between the private company Celera and the publicly funded HGP to sequence the 3 billion letters of our DNA had been very much the competitor sport to watch during the course of that spring. Each subsequent year seemed to bring a whirlwind of technological advances and new understandings in DNA technology, improving the speed, and lowering the costs of DNA sequencing. By the time I left my most recent research lab we were able to sequence entire bacterial genomes (all be it squished together on a single sequencing chip) in just over a week for £50 a piece – an unthinkable speed and price only a few years previously.

So the question remains, is this the right time to have a look at my own DNA? Admittedly the personalized genomic industry isn’t sequencing your entire genome; rather they give you an overview of genes with known ‘phenotypes’ – those characteristics that can be observed. Some of these may just reveal curiosities – such as why you may be particularly affected by caffeine – or may reveal more disturbing findings, such as a pre-disposition to a certain disease; I can’t deny that I have a nagging curiosity about the former, but have less inclination to discover the latter. I’m also aware that just knowing a DNA sequence doesn’t necessarily tell you whether, how and when it is used; all cells ultimately contain the same code, and yet a nerve cell is able to extract from the code an exact set of instructions for how it should look and function, and likewise a liver cell. How two such different cells can read from the same material, yet grow and differentiate into such different roles – and remain that way – is key to understanding both how organisms develop, but also to how errors in these processes can result in diseases such as some forms of cancer.

I’m hoping there will be some great discussions on how our growing understanding of these processes can be applied to ‘genomic medicine’, and as I will be live-blogging the afternoon session 1B (The promised land of genomic medicine: how do we actually get there?) this will likely focus on the socioeconomic and ethical considerations of what we learn, and how we get there. I’m also live-blogging the afternoon session 2A (Genetics in agriculture and the environment: where can the science take us?), and I’ll be interested to see which of several different directions this takes, but with Matt Ridley as moderator, I’m sure it’ll be engaging.

I am grateful to the organizers for the opportunity to attend and write about the Nobel Week Dialogue, and I can’t deny that I hope to get to see something of the city – thinly veiled in the winter light as it will be in December.

This post originates from the Nobel Week Dialogue 2012, where the author is a member of the official blog team.


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