Since the legal tsunami of court decisions affecting many aspects of life sciences – from patents on Round-UpTM Ready soybeans to “companion diagnostics” – has rolled back out to the sea of summer break, I have found time to reflect on the progression of the life sciences – particularly genomics. My musings were prompted by two recent New York Times’ articles – one by Edward Rothstein on an exhibit, “Genomics – Unlocking Life’s Code”, (Aug. 30, 2013) now at the Smithsonian Institute and another by Amy Harmon, entitled “Golden Rice: Lifesaver?” (Aug. 25, 2013).
My reflections were also triggered by an opportunity that was offered to me a few weeks ago - and that I leapt to take – to go birding with Dr. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953. Although he is well into his 80′s, he had little trouble getting in and out of my SUV and “getting on” the birds with his binoculars. A further coincidence was that, earlier in the year, I had presented a paper on patenting DNA at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, where he is the Emeritus Director. I told him this with some trepidation, since he came out against patenting DNA many years ago.
The point of this story is not to point out the wonders of geriatric medicine, but that it reminded me that all the progress that has been made in genomics-based biotechnology has occurred in the blink of an eye, insofar as human scientific advances go. When Drs. Watson and Crick published on the structure of DNA in 1953, I was unwrapping my first chemistry set. Ten years ago, a human genome was sequenced. If the service was widely available, most people could carry the DNA sequence around with them on a flash drive. All this progress in only about 50 years! If any of you youngsters think that this is a long time, consider that it took 500 years or so from the discovery that the planets revolve around the sun until we could put a man on (just) our moon.