Live from the Future of Life

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BARRINGTON BROWN/PHOTO RESEARCHERS

Watson, left, and Crick in 1953, showing off their famous model of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England

Monterey, Calif. When President Kennedy hosted a state dinner for U.S. Nobel laureates, he commented that it was the greatest collection of intellect at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined there by himself. You got that same heady feeling when a galaxy of scientists, academics, artists and business innovators gathered here Wednesday for the start of a three-day summit, hosted by TIME, to sip chardonnay and mull over the future of life. As one might expect from such a powerhouse crowd pondering so cosmic a theme, there were fireworks from the outset as participants debated stem cell research, discussed the upswing in anti-evolutionary fervor, examined the promise of nanotechnology in medicine and considered whether anyone would ever really make a big payday from the genomics revolution. Still, the academic spats did nothing to dampen the general optimism that science would improve the human condition by eradicating disease, extending life span and offering a healthy economic payoff to boot.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, the conference kicked off with four preliminary ?tutorials? on topics that are a direct outgrowth of their momentous achievement.

John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, a pioneer in stem cell research, retraced the turbulent history of that promising field, which he lamented had lately acquired an ?Alice in Wonderland quality? where things aren?t always what they seem. He blamed this partly on media hype, partly on ?lousy science? and partly on political pressures — notably the Bush administration?s decision to sharply limit the availability of human embryonic stem cells. Still, he cited a number of promising recent experiments in which stem cells were used to repair damaged tissue in animals; for example, he showed a video of a partially paralyzed rat that appears to miraculously regain mobility after an implantation of neural stem cells. But Gearhart emphasized that lab animals are not humans and predicted that it would take from seven to ten years before such treatments would be available for treatment of such conditions as stroke damage, Parkinson?s disease and spinal chord injury. ?It will take at least that long to get over the safety issues,? he said.

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British science popularizer Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker) presided over a lively discussion about the rising pressure in the U.S. to give equal instruction time in biology classrooms to an alternative to evolutionary theory called creation science. Most participants agreed that this was a thinly veiled updating of the Biblical version of human origins wrapped in the cloak of science, but they had no real answer to this trend in light of the strong pressure from religious conservatives on local school boards. Dawkins suggested that biology teachers might help their cause by emphasizing that when scientists speak of evolutionary theory, they aren?t necessarily questioning the facts, but are merely following scientific convention.

In a tutorial on the economic potential of the genomics revolution, Juan Enriquez, director of the Harvard Business School?s life science project, had cautionary words. He said that while genomics-based information would dominate the world economy in the next 50 years, only those countries that understand these developments and take advantage of them are going to be big winners. The rest, he said, are going to fall by the wayside, economically and otherwise. While he did not specifically cite the Bush administration?s restrictions on stem cells, his listeners interpreted his comments as an implied warning about the economic dangers of such a policy. In a similar vein, Ralph Merkle, vice president of technology assessment for the Foresight Institute, heralded the great promise of nanotechnology in medicine — the development, for example, of tiny molecular computers that could work inside the body — but threw cold water on the idea of any quick profits from such innovations because we are still many years from being turned into a practical reality.

As befitting a gathering marking the Watson-Crick discovery, the star of the first day?s proceedings turned out to be (who else?) James Watson. (His erstwhile partner, Francis Crick, passed up the chance to appear.) In a public conversation with ABC News correspondent Robert Krulwich at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Watson wittily retraced the unfolding of the great event 50 years ago, along with some personal history. Insisting that he was not particularly brilliant, he recalled how, as a 13-year-old radio Quiz Kid, he was knocked off the show after only three appearances by a seven-year-old phenom on the Bible and Shakespeare. At the University of Chicago, which he entered at age 15, he chose biology over physics because, he said, ?I didn?t see any arrogance in biology — at least in those days.?

Today, there?s a questionable sense of modesty when Watson explains how he and Crick, a dropout physicist, managed to beat the world-renowned chemist Linus Pauling to the double helix. Watson said that it was really a simple problem: ?If it were complicated, I wouldn?t have gotten it.? He refused to retract his somewhat churlish portrait of his rival, the British crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, in his gossipy book The Double Helix, saying that she blew her chances of cracking the puzzle by refusing to cooperate with her savvy King?s College co-worker Maurice Wilkins, who ultimately shared a Nobel with Watson and Crick. As for the pairing of their names, Watson said that he got the first position when they sent off their paper to Nature as a result of the toss of a coin. Anyway, he said, ?I think I should have been first.? Nonetheless, skeptical colleagues in Cambridge for some months thereafter kept calling the double helix the WC structure (after the Brit jargon for toilet), because, said Watson with a triumphant grin, they were sure that?s where it would wind up. Predictions from the Future of Life conference for the year 2010: By then we?ll have sequenced the complete tree of life, possibly even breeds long extinct, including the common ancestor of humans and chimps. My ambition would be to shake hands with Lucy. ?Author Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Medicine will become thoroughly personalized. For under $1,000 we will be able to get our entire genome sequenced in only half an hour. Doctors will be able to tell almost instantly whether our genome is normal or carries the blueprint for disease. — Leroy Hood, president and director, Institute for Systems Biology Finally we will be able to change the way we think about cancer. It won?t just be ameliorated. It will be cured because expanding medical databases, improvements in pattern recognition and intensive computer analysis will finally bring our understanding of this disease down to the molecular level. — Caroline Kovac, general manager, IBM Life Sciences. People will do everything they can to get the sort of kids they want. Cloning will become commonplace. Imagine, you?ll be able to get your own Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Elvis Presley. — Rick Smolan, founder and CEO, Against All Odds Productions.