Genetic Code Could Hold Key to Medical Fate

The world as we know it is going to change, and in all likelihood, the folks working at the intersection of technology, genetics and biology will be responsible for it.

The products and technologies emerging from research conducted at the vortex of those previously separate fields will have an impact on how we travel, heat our homes, keep disease at bay and age, what we spend on health care and probably how we think about our investment portfolios.

Speaking at the recent Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, J. Craig Venter, founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics and a pioneer and victor in the race to sequence the most complete human genome, offered a stunning commentary on where the world is going and how quickly we're going to get there.

Crowd reactions ranged from "exhilarating" to "creepy" to "huh?" as Venter spoke of progress and the necessity of aggressively pushing this research forward.

Both in the lab and in the field (in this case a much-chronicled round-the-world ocean voyage to collect and analyze sea water), Venter and his team have gathered vast quantities of data in the search for answers to critical life questions. Like breakthrough work in other fields, these explorers have discovered that most of what we thought we knew before, in this case about the genetic makeup of life, was wrong.

One example: Before Venter's work, scientists believed that the differences in the genetic makeup of individuals was a very small fraction of a percent.

But the team discovered that the differences among individuals are substantially greater than that, as much as 1 to 2 percent. These differences are expressed as millions of variations on a theme, differing by the DNA in our genes, the number of copies of our genes, the alignment of the DNA/genes in or on those chromosomes.

The more we understand our genetic makeup and our differences, the more we can in time do something about our futures.

"We like to pay for disasters. We don't like to pay to prevent them," Venter pointed out, illustrating the immense value of understanding what we're made of so we can use that knowledge to alter our medical fate.

Someday, he said, we might check for updates on genetic discoveries with the same frequency and enthusiasm we currently reserve for our stock portfolios. With this knowledge, we may well be able to redirect our systems away from Alzheimer's, cancers and a long list of hereditary ills.

Only once we have "read" our genes and understand what they say about individual hazards that may lie ahead can we develop an appropriate game plan. Without an understanding of our genetically programmed risks, the potential for preventive health care will remain a hope, not a reality.

Unfortunately, examining our own genomes is currently out of the question -- economically -- for most of us. While the price has plummeted from the $100 million dollar research range to an estimated $300,000 per sequence, the process is still too expensive for all but Google founders and professional athletes.

However, the slope of the cost curve is clearly steeper than the toughest double black-diamond run at Jackson: The day is clearly coming when gathering a personal genetic history will be within reach for the rest of us.

This unfathomably large opportunity in preventive health care is but one of the opportunities likely to emerge from this research.

After the ocean voyage, the team has recognized that we are early on the curve of discovering life on this planet, and in particular, learning about survival in extreme conditions.

The work of these and other scientists, with the still accumulating mountains of data, could lead to breakthroughs in techniques for generating clean energy from coal, from algae, from liquid effluent and from most anything built of organic material and bacteria.

The real message here? We are only beginning to understand how little we know about -- well, about anything. A new frontier beckons, with a few audacious pioneers just discovering the equivalent of the Mississippi River as they work their way toward gold country.

Some of what they learn will shock, surprise and disturb us. Most of it will shake up our lives in ways we can't foresee, but it is our obligation -- our fabulous opportunity -- to encourage that exploration as quickly and aggressively as possible.

Lise Buyer, a long-time Silicon Valley investor, is a principal at the Class V Group,