Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Genome Wager

I came across this wager while researching morphic fields in my "eye of a newt' quest... Somehow it all ties together with my quest, and I hope I am still around to see the outcome of the wager.

The wager arose from Rupert's debate with Lewis Wolpert, The Nature of Life - a Scientific Debate at the Cambridge Science Festival, March 20, 2009. Lewis Wolpert and Rupert announced a wager on the predictive power of the genome. Their wager was announced in the New Scientist on July 8, 2009.

From Newton to Hawking, scientists love wagers. Now Lewis Wolpert has bet Rupert Sheldrake a case of fine port that:

Per Lewis Wolpert:
"By 1 May 2029, given the genome of a fertilised egg of an animal or plant, we will be able to predict in at least one case all the details of the organism that develops from it, including any abnormalities."

Per Rupert Sheldrake:
"Lewis Wolpert's faith in the predictive power of the genome is misplaced. Genes enable organisms to make proteins, but do not contain programs or blueprints, or explain the development of embryos.

Random molecular permutations simply cannot explain how organisms work. Instead, cells, tissues and organs develop in a modular manner, shaped by morphogenetic fields, first recognised by developmental biologists in the 1920s. Wolpert himself acknowledges the importance of such fields. Among biologists, he is best known for "positional information", by which cells "know" where they are within the field of a developing organ, such as a limb. But he believes morphogenetic fields can be reduced to standard chemistry and physics. I disagree. I believe these fields have organising abilities, or systems properties, that involve new scientific principles.

The wager will be decided on May 1, 2029, and if the outcome is not obvious, the Royal Society, the world’s most venerable scientific organization, will be asked to adjudicate. The winner will receive a case of fine port, Quinta do Vesuvio, 2005, which should have reached perfect maturity by 2029 and is being stored in the cellars of The Wine Society.

Both have set out their cases in New Scientist here: The Genome Wager.

Here's an observation about The Human Genome Project, from Sheldrake:
"The Human Genome Project has itself set back the hopes it engendered. First, our genome contains only between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, far fewer than the 100,000 expected. In contrast, sea urchins have about 26,000, and rice plants 38,000.

Moreover, our genome differs very little from the chimpanzee's genome, the sequencing of which was completed in 2005. As Svante Pääbo, director of the Chimpanzee Genome Project, commented: "
We cannot see in this why we are so different from chimpanzees." (1)

Wolpert is not alone in believing in the predictive value of the genome. Governments, venture capitalists and medical charities have bet and are still betting billions of dollars on it. More than a case of fine port is at stake.

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