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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

sequencing the biosphere in 30 years

Freeman Dyson envisions a world in the not too distant future where cheap single molecule DNA sequencers allow us to complete the sequencing of the whole biosphere.
What biology now needs is a single-molecule sequencer that can handle one molecule at a time and sequence it by physical rather than chemical methods. A single-molecule machine could be much cheaper as well as faster than existing machines. It might be as small and convenient as a lap-top computer, zipping along a molecule of DNA as quickly as a polymerase enzyme, reading out base-pairs into computer memory at a rate 1,000 per second. At that speed, a single machine could read out a complete human genome in a month.

I now venture to make another prediction. With plenty of hard work and a little luck, we shall evolve single-molecule sequencers that extend Moore’s Law into the future, increasing the speed of sequencing and decreasing the unit cost by a factor of a hundred every decade. If this prediction turns out to be as accurate as the original Moore’s Law, we shall have in 30 years a portable sequencer that costs a few hundred dollars and sits on an office desk next to the personal computer and the printer and the DNA synthesizer.

What will this mean for biology? Up to now we have sequenced genomes of about a hundred species, most of them microbes, with a total of about 10 billion base-pairs. The biosphere of our planet contains about 10 million species, and their genomes contain altogether about 10 quadrillion base-pairs.

If Moore’s Law remains valid for sequencing DNA, we can sequence the entire biosphere in about 30 years, at a cost not much greater than the cost of the human genome. In the language of computer science, the genomes of all the species on Earth add up to a few petabytes of data. This would be a data-base comparable in size with other data-bases that already exist. It would be about as big as the information contained in all books in all languages.

Perhaps it is a coincidence, or perhaps it is evidence of some deeper connection, that the sum total of our cultural heritage stored in literature is about equal to the sum total of our biological heritage stored in genomes...

See this link to Science & Theology News for the full article, which is based on remarks delivered at the "Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Evolution" conference.

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