PopTech Blog

Sequencing DNA and Jonathan Rothberg's quest to do more with less

Jonathan Rothberg is best known for inventing high speed DNA sequencing, a discovery which led to the first sequence of an individual human genome. When he spoke at PopTech this past fall, contributor Lindsay Borthwick caught up with him to discuss the massive implications of his work in the fields of biology and medicine. We've excerpted the interview here and paired it with his stage talk.

In an interview he gave to the journal Nature last year, Jonathan Rothberg, the CEO of biotech company Ion Torrent, cited Steve Jobs as his biggest influence. While that's probably true of many tech entrepreneurs, Jobs recent death, from cancer, is bound to have affected Rothberg more than most. That's because the Connecticut-based engineer and serial entrepreneur invites comparison to the former Apple CEO in a way that few people do. After all, just as Jobs revolutionized personal computing, Rothberg is doing the same for biology and medicine. At the heart of both revolutions is the humble silicon chip.

About 10 years ago, Rothberg pioneered a faster and cheaper method for reading genomes called next-generation sequencing, which is currently the gold standard in research labs around the world. Now, he has launched a desktop gene machine that may finally usher in the long-awaited personal genomics revolution by dramatically cutting the cost of decoding an individual’s DNA sequence and fingering their genetic weaknesses. This, in turn, creates the possibility that we'll soon be able to diagnose and treat a host of diseases on an individualized basis -- chief among them, cancer. Unlike its predecessor's, Rothberg's new invention -- the Ion Personal Genome Machine (PGM) -- reads DNA using semiconductor technology, making it cheaper, faster and more scalable than any other.

Due to the sequencing power of both generations of his machines, Rothberg has laid claim to a lot of firsts: he led the effort to sequence the first individual genome (James Watson’s of the double helix), initiated the first large-scale sequencing effort of ancient DNA -- the Neanderthal Genome Project, and helped crack the mystery behind the massive disappearances of the honey bee, as well as a deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany.

We sat down with Rothberg at PopTech 2011 to discuss how making DNA sequencing more accessible stands to transform medicine.

PopTech: You've sequenced the genome of James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA. Have you sequenced your own?
Jonathan Rothberg: I get this question from my wife because I recently sequenced Gordon Moore's genome, who's the founder of Intel. And, as you mentioned, I’ve sequenced Jim Watson's genome. She asked me, “Why do you always sequence 80-year-old Caucasian men? They’re healthy.” I sequence them precisely for that reason. Because except for educating people about why it’s important to sequence for medicine, for discovery, for making drugs, for diagnostics, for understanding the progression of disease, for finding a cure for breast cancer, I think genetic materials is private and that you should have a reason to sequence it. You should be sequencing because you are trying to understand disease, you should be sequencing because you are trying to make a diagnostic, you should be sequencing because you are making a drug. So, no, I haven’t.

What's your vision for the future of genome sequencing and personal genomics? Some scientists have suggested that every baby should have its heel pricked and its genome sequenced at birth.
My vision is that sequencing will develop in an analogous way and be equal or greater in importance than imaging has been to medicine, just as how part of medical practice we have X-rays, MRIs and CAT scans.

I do, though, have a vision that starts with the heel prick, where, in a newborn unit of a hospital, every child has his or her sequence done. And I think there will be a time when that will make sense -- when the economics makes sense and when we have data that correlates sequence with disease, sequence with things we can take action on. Then it will make sense to sequence the whole genome.

Read our complete interview with Jonathan Rothberg.

Interview: Lukas Large and the natural world, illustrated

Yellow birdI've long been a fan of Lukas Large's Tumblr and its beautiful images of scientific illustrations. Each post is a single drawn image from the natural world (an animal, bones, a vintage anatomical drawing) with links back to the illustration's source. The site is updated multiple times a day, and readers are also invited to submit drawings of their own or others' work.

Scientific illustration is a wonderful blend of science and art, and Large's site gives visibilty to some works that otherwise may have languished unnoticed in various medical journals or textbooks in dusty libraries around the world. It also helps draw attention to new artists working in this field (like the image above from Brooklyn-based George Boorujy).

I was curious to learn more about the man behind the website. Here's a bit about his background and what he finds inspiring.

Michelle Riggen-Ranson: Where are you originally from? Where are you based now?
Lukas Large: I grew up in Stourbridge in the West Midlands in England and I still live there and work in the nearby city of Birmingham.  

What is your background/vocation?
I studied Genetics at University but I don’t currently work in anything to do with science.

Read more...

Toward Resilience: First round of speakers announced for PopTech Iceland!

PopTech is heading to Iceland in just over a month! On June 27th, we will be kicking off our two-day conference in Reykjavik focused on the theme of resilience.  We'll be exploring how and why some social, economic, business, technological and ecological systems are able to "bounce back" from shocks and disruption, while others are not. How do we build a more secure future and sturdier selves to live in it? Such insight has powerful implications for how we can build these systems to anticipate disruption, self-heal, and adapt.   

Today we're pleased to reveal our first round of speakers who will be taking the stage next month. Whether it's a theoretical physicist studying why cities succeed where companies fail or an architect building floating schools and hospitals to reach the rural poor in flood-prone Bangladesh, PopTech Iceland will showcase people examining resilience in its many forms from a variety of viewpoints. Speakers include:

  • Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is the fifth President of the Republic of Iceland.
  • George A. Bonanno, PhD, is a professor of Clinical Psychology and director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab in the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research centers on how human beings cope with loss, trauma and other forms of extreme adversity, with an emphasis on resilience and the salutary role of personality, positive emotion and emotion regulatory processes.
  • Simonetta Carbonaro is an expert in consumer psychology, strategic marketing and design management. She carries out research in the area of consumer ethos and behavior, forecasting the direction of consumer culture.
  • Nico Muhly has collaborated on projects with Antony and the Johnsons, Björk, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Grizzly Bear, Jónsi of Sigur Rós, and Valgeir Sigurðsson in addition to numerous recordings of his own music, composer. His first opera, Two Boys, premiered at the English National Opera in June 2011.
  • Mohammed Rezwan is an architect and the founder of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a not-for-profit development organization in Bangladesh that uses boats to provide education, training and health care to thousands of people in that country’s most flood-prone regions.
  • Joy Reidenberg, PhD, is a professor of Anatomy and Functional Morphology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Her research into the anatomies of whales, dolphins and porpoises has enabled these animals to become valued "natural experiments" to learn about basic biomechanical relationships that affect all mammals, including humans.
  • Judith Rodin is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the world’s leading philanthropic organizations. Prior to the Rockefeller Foundation, she was the president of the University of Pennsylvania, and provost of Yale University. She was the first woman named to lead an Ivy League institution and is the first woman to serve as the Rockefeller Foundation’s president in its nearly 100-year history.
  • Eben Upton is a founder and trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and serves as its Executive Director. The Raspberry Pi is an ultra-low cost, credit card-sized computer designed to fill a much-needed technological gap in communities that cannot afford more traditional computing hardware and to provide children around the world the opportunity to learn programming.
  • Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist whose recent work has focused on developing an underlying quantitative theory for the structure and dynamics of cities, companies and long-term sustainability, including rates of growth and innovation, the accelerating pace of life, and why companies die, yet cities survive.
  • Steve Lansing is an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, and a senior fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. His groundbreaking work on Balinese water temple networks has illuminated the complex interplay among society, religion and ecology in the maintenance of the Bali rice terrace ecology.

We hope you'll join us for two lively days filled with compelling presentations, musical performances, short films, and collaborative sessions. We have a limited number of conference tickets remaining. Secure your seat today!

Northern sights: Photographer Florian Schulz shoots the Arctic

If you think the Arctic isn't melting, try spending some time with the polar bears. That's exactly what nature and wildlife photographer Florian Schulz and his wife Emil did for 18 months, producing some of the most amazing images of wildlife to come out of that region of the world.  

Schulz, a native of Germany, has a strong commitment to the conservation of natural places and creatures. He presented some of his images at the recent Collaborations for Cause summit produced by the Blue Earth Alliance. At the summit, photographers and media-makers got together for two days to talk about how powerful storytelling can change outcomes for people and places. Schulz presented photos from his book based on the project To The Arctic, and a clip from the same-named companion IMAX film directed by documentary filmmaker Greg MacGillivray.

"I hope to fuel the new conservation movement of connectivity," says Schulz. "Perhaps sharing my photography will move people’s hearts."

Often called a barren wasteland by those seeking to exploit its natural resources (ahem...oil), the Arctic is actually teeming with life. Schulz shot polar bears feeding on whale carcasses, thundering herds of migrating caribou, and coral reefs thriving below the frozen surface, all revealing a compelling story that the Arctic is a place worth preserving.

This week in PopTech: Routing devices, emerging explorers and being green

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • Jonathan Harris (PopTech 2007) was featured in this Big Think video where he unpacks how social media is used as “routing devices for human attention… providing our species with a common nervous system.”

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Betsian

Science fairs of the future


What comes to mind when we think of school science fairs? Maybe clay model volcanoes spewing out goo, display boards with hand drawn illustrations, petri dish experiments collecting mold? These days, though, science fairs have been invigorated, as evidenced by the success of the Google Science Fair. We've transitioned from dusty events that feel straight out of the 1950s to those that are more contemporary, addressing current events and engaging students in a new way.

But what will science fairs of the future look like? That's the most recent question posed in Wired magazine's monthly series, Found. This series explores how the future might look on a random assortment of topics: the future of watches, TV dinners, restrooms and grocery stores, for example.

Each month, we’ll propose a scenario and present some ideas and concepts. Then it’s up you: Sketch out your vision and upload your ideas. We’ll use the best suggestions as inspiration for a future Found page, giving kudos to contributors, and we’ll add our favorite submission to this story.

So if you've got an idea, let them know with images (preferably) and text. We look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Image: folkpics

Anne-Marie Slaughter on a new era of 'citizen social actor foreign policy'


In case you missed it, professor of politics and international relations at Princeton and former Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State Anne-Marie Slaughter (PopTech 2011) was on NPR last week to weigh in on the struggling international peace plan for Syria.

Slaughter is a foreign policy expert and watching her PopTech talk you'll see why. Slaughter provided an overview on the future of foreign policy, exploring the transformation, over the past few decades, from state to non-state, non-governmental 'social actors' as key players to effect change in a less siloed, more networked world.

Federal government, state government, local government, Camden government and then recombine those pieces in countless, different ways with social actors. That is what we're heading for, and it has profound implications for how we think about foreign policy, how we go about solving national and global problems.

This new networked era, she goes on to explain, where coalitions of governments, foundations, corporations and individuals are joining forces, has contributed to greater overall resilience, a perfect segue into our theme for PopTech 2012. "When bad things happen, those are the sinews of resilience."

Image-wise: Merely a mountain

A mountain is transformed into a glowing red beacon as the sun's rays break through the clouds at sunrise. Harry Litchman captured the image at Grinnell Peak in Glacier National Park, Montana, America.

Image: Harry Litchman/Solent News & Photo Agency

via The Telegraph and In Other News

This week in PopTech: Modern medicine, good food and reluctant innovators


There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • Just in time for Mother's Day, Rapper Abdominal (PopTech 2008) has released a new track, "Courage," which features none other than...his mom!
  • This week, Ken Banks, founder of Kiwanja as well as PopTech faculty and 2008 Social Innovation Fellow, posed a request on his blog seeking ideas and nominations for "reluctant innovators" or more specifically, "people who unexpectedly come up with an innovative solution to a problem they’ve experienced or witnessed" for his new book. If you know someone who fits the bill, let him know.

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Modern Medicine

Green for All celebrates all moms

In honor of Mother's Day this Sunday, Green for All (GFA), an organization working to promote a clean energy economy, released a video entitled "7 Billion", which honors women's strength and leadership around the world. The video features hip-hop artists (and GFA's Dream Reborn music contest winners) Silent C and Invest, who say the are "inspired by their own mothers to honor the struggle and the courage of women around the world." Learn more about the artists as they talk about what inspired the making of the video.

GFA is also hosting a "Twitter Townhall" today with Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins (GFA CEO and expecting mother), Roberta Shields (Rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges' mother and President of The Ludacris Foundation ), and Ashara Ekundayo (Green For All Fellow, social entrepreneur and mother of DJ CAVEM.

Follow @greenforall and #StrongMoms today, May 10th at 11-11:30am PST, 2-2:30pm EST to take part in the conversation about motherhood, leadership and social change.