Harvard geneticist George Church, 54, is co-founder of the Human Genome Project and the Personal Genome Project. More than anyone in his field, he's helped open up DNA mapping technology to the masses. Although most DNA startups, including some he has advised, often focus on less expensive "genotyping" that can test for a limited number of known traits, Church has been a proponent of making blueprints of entire gene sets available at affordable prices. Until recently, that seemed like a pipe dream. Only a handful of people on the planet have had all their genes mapped. It's been a six- and seven-figure proposition. But as Church points out here, it's starting to happen, and it could be a boon for biotech.
Entrepreneur.com: Given the economy, how will all these DNA biotech companies fare?
George Church: They'll be fire sales for awhile until they stabilize. But how many fields of technology are undergoing that kind of exponential change? Almost none. It's like with computers: People never thought of the internet as a use when they first came out. Eventually people totally tuned in. With genotyping we might still be blind to the killer app. It's not just medical uses, it's ancestry, it's applications to help make bio-fuels, and it's applications for making lifestyle and dating decisions. DNA technology is going to be as diverse as personal computers are today.
Is genotyping tapping into the seemingly growing narcissism industry that includes everything from luxury brands to cosmetic surgery?
Church: Narcissistic is a loaded term. We're concerned about ourselves and our families--we worry about the roads in our neighborhood rather than the roads in the rest of the world, yes. But I think people should be interested from a scientific standpoint. Moonwalks shouldn't be as interesting as knowing about your own genes. It's not a huge leap of faith to think the level of excitement we had about space exploration should be on steroids when it comes to people's own DNA. It's just a matter of bringing the price of testing down.
How will crowdsourcing help DNA knowledge evolve?
Church: One of the things that will help expand the data is having a meeting place, a watering hole to see what standards are set and what people are doing. We started personalgenomes.org to show off all the technology in one place. We're getting some really amazing data sets. We're trying to demystify all these things. We want to help people share data. You might want to tell people about how your kids are going to have blue eyes and be a marathon runner. It's the only place where people are putting trait data and gene data in the public domain. You can do a crowdsourcing and wiki way to look at things.
Are genotyping firms crossing the line into medical diagnosis?
Church: I think patients mostly understand what they're getting. So as long as there's no hyperbole, I think that's fine. I have encouraged these firms to do ancestry tests and to educate customers on non-medical traits. A lot of people are more interested in that right now.
Is the expansion of DNA knowledge changing the way we look at race?
Church: We're on a trend line where race is becoming less of a valuable concept. Now it's actually a relatively poor predictor. Your skin color doesn't really predict your blood pressure. Almost everyone is of mixed ancestry at this point. The 'new race' is your full genotype instead of this vague relationship between skin color and medical traits. Someday we'll have a complete pedigree of the entire human population. And everybody will be connected to everybody on a huge family tree, like Google maps.
Will drug companies take advantage of the new knowledge base?
Church: At first they were scared because they thought this might make the market smaller. It was a bugaboo. Others will find that just getting a drug approved will be easier if you can, for example, exclude that small part of society that has an adverse reaction.
Will insurance companies cover genotyping? What's in it for them?
Church: Insurance companies that have some vision will cover it. But insurance companies aren't famous for trying to reinvent themselves. The outcome is lower costs.
How close are we to the $1,000 gene map?
Church: One of my companies, Complete Genomics in California, has announced that they will have a $5,000 genome in the second quarter of 2009. I they think they're pretty close to it now. That's a price, not a cost. The cost for materials is about $1,000. We're really not that far away. We've been seeing a reduction in price by a factor of 10 every 10 years. If we continue that pace, it could be $500 in a year. I'm not predicting that, but that's where the curves are going.