Dreams of DNA machines

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

I’m often asked about the status of the BGI cognitive genomics project. A fairly long article about it appeared in WIRED recently. I have quite a lot of experience with the media from tech startup days, as well as from coverage of my physics and genomics research. My advice is to read everything with a grain of salt. Most journalists have the best intentions, but the complexity of the topics they try to cover makes their task extremely difficult.

While I cannot give a comprehensive update, I can state that

  1. Volunteers who qualified for the study via cog-genomics.org and returned their samples by approximately September 2012 have all been sequenced on the Illumina platform, and will receive updates on the status of their genomic data relatively soon.
  2. The relationship between BGI and Illumina has deteriorated since the acquisition of Complete Genomics by the former, which was vigorously opposed (ostensibly on national security grounds, believe it or not) by the latter. Our project has not escaped collateral impact from this development.

In other news, the documentary DNA Dreams (about our project) has won the Film & Science Award and has been selected by various film festivals throughout the world, including in Italy, France, USA and Denmark and the Grand Competition of Pariscience. It has also been acquired by several international broadcasters, including Sweden (SR), Japan (NHK), Germany and France (ARTE). See trailer below.


DNA dreams.

My comments on the documentary from an earlier post:

  1. As you might expect, it emphasizes sensational aspects of our research — genetic engineering, drugs for cognitive enhancement, etc. These are all possibilities, obviously topics we discussed at the behest of the film makers, but of course for now our work is basic research with no near term applications. (Basic research tends to be less interesting to viewers than science fiction extrapolations.)
  2. I find the video visually interesting, but at times it emphasizes the alien or sinister. Even the musical background seems chosen for this purpose.
  3. Several important members of our team have little or no role in the documentary, despite being interviewed extensively during its making. I suppose the director was limited in what she could include, given the 60 minute format. The young woman who leads the cloning team is not actually part of our group.
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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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