PopTech Blog

Interview: Jonathan Rothberg on speed-reading your genome

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.

Over the next five to 10 years, we will have to be sequencing -- and working to make sense of the sequence -- so that a decade from now, when that heel is pricked, we'll be able to do something. For example, does that child need a different diet, or should that child stay out of the sun? So right now, I think sequencing is best done as it's needed -- so you have a person with cancer or a newborn who is sick and you use that sequence to inform medical decisions. As we have more medical information along with the sequence, I think it will become a more general tool. And the nice thing is that by that time, it will be cheap enough that it can be universal. Read more...

Take a look! All PopTech 2011 videos now available

We are extremely excited to announce that today we’ve released talks from every person who took the PopTech stage last month. Check out a few highlights:

For your viewing pleasure, all talks are now available online. And if you need a bigger, in-person fix, come join us in Iceland this summer at PopTech 2012 Reykjavik: Toward Resilience.

Fun with mushrooms: Eben Bayer and his alternative packaging material

Check out this great Motherboard TV episode about Ecovative Design founder and 2009 PopTech Fellow Eben Bayer on transforming low-value agricultural byproducts into strong biological composites that can be used as biodegradable alternatives to conventional plastics, foams, and packaging materials.

Flashback: On America Recycles Day, Brooke Betts Farrell rethinks recycling

Did you know that today is America Recycles Day? Well, it is. And to honor this day of reducing, reusing and recycling, we're highlighting a PopTech 2010 talk from RecycleMatch founder Brooke Betts Farrell in which she rethinks the whole entire process. RecycleMatch, considered the eBay of trash, gives new meaning to the adage that one person's junk is another person's treasure.

Silly 'stache, serious cash: Movember raises $80.7 million for cancer research

You may have heard about a movement called "Movember", which inspires men around the globe to grow out their facial hair in order to raise awareness about prostate cancer and money for related charities. Last year's Movember efforts raised $80.7 million US dollars for cancer research; now in its ninth year, the Movember team has made exciting progress.

The folks at Movember announced that, "thanks to the incredible fundraising efforts of the Movember community, scientists, for the first time, have constructed a complete genetic map of prostate cancer. This historic development will expand the understanding of how the disease works, leading to improved and more personalized treatment for every man diagnosed."

Watch the video above to hear prostate cancer genome researcher Levi Alexander Garraway describe how fundraising projects like Movember contribute to dramatic diagnosis and treament benefits.

This year's Movember efforts have been expanded to include the mustache's hairy brother beard as part of "Novembeard". So if the men in your life are suddenly getting more hirsute, help them out with a hug and maybe a donation.

The Movember team believes that no upper lip should go unadorned, and that no man should die of prostate cancer. Hats off (and wax on!) to the thousands of men across the globe who will once again be getting furry for charity. 

This week in PopTech: Quotable and notable

eL Seed PopTech 2011

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.

Give back to the world at least what you’ve received.

—French-Tunisian artist eL Seed’s thoughtful and fitting work of graffiti and Arabic calligraphy, produced during the PopTech 2011 conference, aptly expresses our shared commitment to positive action in support of world-changing people, projects and ideas.

When you do things on a small scale, you have to understand every part of the process. The smaller the scale you want to work on, the further back in time you have to go. There is such a lot of effort and intelligence and history that go into something as simple as a toaster.

Thomas Thwaites at PopTech 2011. If you enjoyed his PopTech talk, you'll love his new book entitled, The Toaster Project


Veterans Day highlight: Bryan Doerries' Theater of War

In honor of Veterans Day, we wanted to share with you a talk given by PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Bryan Doerries about his project, the Theater of War. This theatrical performance  presents readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes to military and civilian communities across the United States and Europe. By presenting these plays to those specific audiences, Theater of War seeks to create a dialogue, foster community, and de-stigmatize the psychological injuries of war.

Read more about Doerries' Theater of War performance at PopTech from a few weeks ago.

Hayat Sindi's i2 Institute connects youth with opportunity

Hayat Sindi sees a gap. The youth of her native country, Saudi Arabia, are very well-educated, with $40 billion invested in education and training in 2011 alone. But they are lacking opportunities. In fact, 43% of Saudi Arabian youth between the ages of 20-24 are unemployed and 70% want to leave the country* – some dire stats when looking at the future of Saudi Arabia and the morale of its youth.

As the first female from the Gulf to earn a PhD in biotechnology, the co-founder of Diagnostics For All, a visiting scholar at Harvard University, and PopTech 2009 Social Innovation and 2010 Science Fellows, Sindi wanted to provide Saudi Arabian youth, and young people from around the Middle East, with opportunities to apply the education they received to entrepreneurial and scientific endeavors - just as she had. In exploring how she could use her education and training to help these young people, she founded the i2 Institute, which she recently launched from the PopTech stage.

The i2 Institute was created to promote imagination and ingenuity for the next generation of innovators, bridging the gap between education and opportunity. Through fellowship programs, training, a peer community, annual conferences, a mentor network and financial investment, i2 hopes to function as an ecosystem that connects science to social need and people to possibility.

“My passion has been about improving the quality of science and engaging and inspiring the hearts and minds of young people. Strong societies depend on them. The future depends on them,” Hayat stated emphatically from the PopTech stage. We look forward to following the i2 Institute as the organization’s work unfolds.

* Source: i2 Institute

Shorts: Daniel Kish's echolocation in action

"They call me the real life batman. My claim to fame is that I click," explains Daniel Kish. His organization, World Access for the Blind, trains the visually impaired to achieve greater freedom through echolocation, a technique that simulates a bat’s night vision of perceiving the environment through sound. In this video shot during PopTech 2011, he hops on a bicycle to show us echolocation in action.

Last chance! PopTech 2012 Reykjavik + Camden ticket bundle

In a world fraught with shocks and disruptions, what causes some systems to break down and others to bounce back? In 2012, PopTech will explore the topic of resilience with two vital events — first in June in Reykjavik, Iceland and then in October in Camden, Maine.  We invite you to join us for what promises to be an extraordinary, international, two-part dialogue.

Register today for both, and take advantage of a $500 discount — available only through November 11!

Images reproduced under Creative Commons license. Top left: Haukur Herbertsson/Flickr; top right: Kris Krüg/PopTech.