Genetic Research Will Drive Computing Needs, Venter Says - InformationWeek

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Genetic Research Will Drive Computing Needs, Venter Says

Craig Venter, whose team mapped the human genome, predicts breakthroughs like vastly deeper understanding of disease and creating species. But computing power and speed are a constraint.

The greatest demand for computing resources will come from biology and medicine as researchers start to use the growing knowledge of genetics to predict and prevent illnesses--and even to create new species from scratch, predicts genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter.

Venter, who led the effort that mapped the human genome at Celera Genomics, spoke Sunday at the InformationWeek Spring Conference in Amelia Island, Fla.

Venter described a future in which we have tens of millions of individuals who have their genetic makeup mapped, and medical professionals analyze that information against medical histories in order to better understand what genetic factors cause disease. "This is going to happen certainly in your lifetime, and possibly in the next 10 years," says Venter, who's now president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which does basic research to advance genomics science. "It's totally dependent on the technology."

Venter offered colon cancer as a reason why that knowledge could be useful. Colon cancer has a 90% survival rate if caught well before symptoms appear. If there were a genetic risk that could be identified on an individual basis, a high-risk person could be regularly screened to catch it early. Venter said that would take a change in thinking of how we approach medicine because we don't reward prevention: "It's hard to put a value on preventing disease. We are a nation that likes to find problems and solve them."

Venter has a lot of other ideas that force a change of thinking. One is the notion of creating new species. By better understanding the basics of genetics, researchers might be able to create organisms that could create energy direct from sugar or sunlight, or ones that could capture and remediate some of the carbon dioxide we put into the air burning fossil fuels. Many of Venter's ideas in this arena center on reducing the use of oil, including creating polymers that might replace the petroleum-based ones used today.

That level of biological engineering isn't possible today, given our limited understanding of the genetics and the biodiversity that exists at a microbial level on our own planet. But Venter thinks we will create synthetic genomes in a matter of years, not decades. "Think of this as the early 1950s and the early age of electronics," he said. "... We only had a few components to work with."

Computing infrastructure will play a key role as the IT industry increases the speed of not just data processing, but storage and transmission as well, Venter said. And the pace of change in biology is moving far faster than the computing industry's ability to keep up with its demand, he said.

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