James Kent on The Future of Genomic Research
  James Kent     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

Well, I think the next ten to fifty years are going to be very interesting for mice and probably very interesting for dogs. I think that we’ve already tweaked the dog so much just by breeding. And people aren’t going to stop. There are going to be pink poodles. And that’s probably where the frivolous aspect of the genomic stuff is going to come in.

But as far as humans, I don’t think there’s going to be much human genetic engineering in the classical sense that scares people. And I think it should scare where you decide that you’re going to get this gene that you dial up what your child is going to be. The problem is that the human—the generation time is too long. That by the time we figured out how to do it, the technology is going to be to the point where we can alter ourselves. And it’s not going to be our children and I feel good about this, because I think that there will come a time when you will be able to decide what’s in your genome. And I am much more comfortable with you making that decision about yourself than about parents making about their children. There’s much less than the nightmare scenarios the state makes it about everybody’s children.

I think that in basically in about—it’s probably in the order of sixty years we will be in control of our own genomes. And where exactly that will go is an interesting thing because some of the research that’s going on we’re finding that humans actually do have a nascent capacity to regenerate; that you can cut off the limb of a newt and it grows back, and you cut off the limb of a human and it doesn’t.

How to say? The cells themselves have a certain intelligence. And we’re finding now that if you take—it’s weird, weird research. It has many ethical things. One thing they found, maybe it’s been ten or fifteen years ago was that for people with Parkinson’s disease you could put in embryonic stems cells, embryonic nerve cells and the cells would sort of like look around, oh, you know this is where I can grow. This is sort of my niche.

Maybe people don’t realize this. The genome is not static. The genome is an information processing organism. It can make decisions. It makes decisions slowly compared to our nervous system. And most of our complex of being human was where our genome figured out how to build a nervous system and then after that, the complexity can grow into a culture instead of our genome. And that’s beautiful. It can go much faster that way. The genome itself in a sense can think. It can make decisions. It can decide to go this way; it can decide to go that way. It has a lot of opportunities. It has two hundred and fifty thousand genes. But it’s only going to use a thousand of them. And how it decides which a thousand to use and how to put it together is based on its inputs and its outputs. And it has inputs and outputs. And it makes decisions on the basis of that.

And the genome itself is really the instructions for a cell, not for a whole body. Its more instructions for a cell and the cell can sort of decide which type of cell to be. And so these embryonic cells that are very flexible, in a way they’re very social. They’re the antithesis of a cancer cell that’s gone off and decided to strike out on its own. But, well, if there’s a niche that needs filling, I can do it. And there’s other cells like this.

There was a very interesting article in PNAS, I think about two months ago where they’re finding, this was a very, very unfortunate group of women who had gotten leukemia. So, first they got leukemia, which is a horrible thing, and it was so bad, the radiation and the works so they had to totally kill off their immune system bone marrow transplants. And some of them it from men. And then these poor women got a brain tumor and died. And fortunately most women aren’t this unlucky, but it’s a big world and some people have very bad luck. And some of these were nice enough to let medicine look at their brains afterwards and they found neurons with “Y” chromosomes. So this is cells that sort of come in, was bone marrow and has transformed into a nerve cell. And it seems like that basically what I think is that they’ll be this intermediate thing where people are going to be basically reprogramming their own cells. And I don’t know exactly when this is going to happen, but I can see it happening very easily in the twenty year timeframe. It’s going to open up some very interesting possibilities. And some of them very scary, but it’s very powerful and I think more than traditional genetics, it is some thing where the individual is going to be able to make choices about it. And I think that’s what always scared people about genetics. You know, you were stuck. You know, you had no choice. That may change.

Jim Kent is a research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. After a stint working in the computer animation industry, he entered the Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology Ph.D. program at Santa Cruz. While completing his degree, he became increasingly interested in bioinformatics. Concurrently, the human genome was being sequenced, accumulating in the databases and was scheduled to be released in one month’s time—however, still no technology was in place to assemble its many sequences. In one month, Jim Kent created a computer program called the GigAssembler and computationally compiled for the first time, the entire human genome so that it could be released to the public at its intended deadline.

Jim Kent focuses on understanding the way in which genes are turned on and off to create varying outcomes.