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Jimmy Doherty meets Steve Jones: How did Darwin shape modern science?

Updated Tuesday, 24th February 2009

How far has Darwin influenced modern science? Steve Jones explains

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Jimmy Doherty: So what work goes on here behind the closed doors at Sanger?

Steve Jones: Well the Sanger Institute in some ways is the Ford Motor Company who’ve realised that if you want to produce lots and lots of stuff on the cheap you have to mechanise it, and that’s really what revolutionised industry in the western world in the 1930s. Here they’ve done it for biology. This is the new revolutionary industrial biology, and as you can see when you look at the machinery going, it looks like an assembly line in a huge factory except there’s no people around, it’s entirely mechanised.

But the actual logic is surprisingly simple. What you’ve got is an enormously long sentence, three thousand million letters long, which you want to read from end to end but you can’t do that, you can’t take this huge length and disentangle it, so you chop it into little snips and you use what they call a shotgun, they blast it with a series of enzymes that randomly break it into bits. They then take each of those bits and they grow them up, and they label them with chemicals and they force them through little tiny tubes, and what that in effect does is to separate the little short segments of message in each bit. And if you do it in the right way you get lots of overlapping bits so the ends actually overlap. And the real task actually isn’t biochemistry, isn’t chemistry which is what you’re seeing here, the real task is computer science. The difficulty is to find those bits, it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, see how they all fit together and make a sentence.

And the enormous improvement in computing technology has revolutionised what they can do. They started off with short bits, a few tens, a few hundreds, a few thousands of bases long, now we’re getting to tens of thousands, soon perhaps to millions of bases. And that really has revolutionised the way we can, the speed at which we can do it. So the whole business is in flux. It’s a bit like, really like the motor industry, you know, you can now make a car in four or five hours, when people used to build them it used to take several years, the first factories took a week, now the same is happening with the DNA.

Jimmy Doherty: So here they can, they’ve decoded the human being and put it down on paper, put it down as data on sheets of paper that you can now read.

Steve Jones: Yes, exactly. And of course this is only the first step, and what you’ve got here is a bit like a car which has been disassembled, you’ve got lots of nuts and bolts and wires and screws, you don’t really realise how they fit together. And that’s the next step, that’s to put it all together again. And, as you can imagine, that’s probably going to be a much more challenging step than demolishing it, which is what they’ve done here. But they’re making progress.

Jimmy Doherty: The work that’s carried out here, I mean I assumed it’s scientists in a laboratory with test tubes, but there’s a lot of high tech machinery and computers involved.

Steve Jones: Well one of the things about modern science, it doesn’t need many scientists any more. It’s a bit like modern motor manufacture, you don’t need many mechanics any more, and that’s what the huge machinery here is. But what’s fascinating is that actually what these machines have done, they’ve invented a science we might call I suppose digital biology. It’s got a code based not just on noughts and ones like a computer, but it’s only got four letters in it and once you’ve got that code the real challenge isn’t chemistry, it’s mathematics, it’s computing. And what’s hidden away in these buildings here are the largest computers in Europe, and some of the largest computers in the world are now associated with decoding genomes.

And everybody knows that the speed of computing and the price of computing has been revolutionised in the last ten years, but the speed of DNA sequencing has been going even faster. So the whole system is changing, what took 15 years and tens of millions of dollars is soon going to take 15 days and thousands of dollars, and soon maybe a few hours and hundreds of dollars. And the beginning of that process really we can see around us here at the Sanger Institute.

Jimmy Doherty: And what does the future hold for decoding?

Steve Jones: Well if I knew what the future held I’d start learning Swedish in order to accept my Nobel Prize, so I don’t. I think what the future’s definitely going to hold, because this is what the future always holds in biology, it holds surprises. It’s not like physics where often it sort of unfolds, physics, it sort of makes sense. Biology doesn’t. Biology is chaos. So we may think rather smugly for the moment that we’ve decoded the human genome but I think we’ve got no answers, we’ve just got new kinds of questions.





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