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Incredibly Powerful Speech from Brenner, but Ewan Birney Disagrees

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Sydney Brenner, a ‘failed’ biologist from UK, delivered a thought-provoking talk in 2006.

Brenner hammers ‘factory science’

The title of his talk was “The Next 100 Years of Biology,” but Brenner, whose scientific triumphs include establishing the existence of messenger RNA, shied away from speculation. Instead, he asked, “What should we do over the next 100 years?”

“I think a lot of (biology) is going in absolutely the wrong direction,” he said.

The Human Genome Project, for example, has led to what Brenner called “factory science” — heavy investment in expensive gene sequencers that begin to drive the direction of research.

“You have 100 machines; you’re looking at about $100 million of investment,” he said. “And you’ve just got to keep that going all the time in order to get the use from them.”

This, he said, and the “Genburo, the Politburo of Genetics, in which everything is decided … stultifies” research, and discourages young people from entering the field.

“They think, ‘How can I work in a field where this guy has a lab of 300 people and all the tools and lots of money?’ And I tell you something; one good idea is worth more than all of that.

“Because what we’re looking for is innovation, something new,” Brenner said. “And you won’t get something new if you work within a completely established mode of work. We need some people to stray off of the standard path and ask new questions.”

Speaking in the crackling cadence of his native South Africa, Brenner took delight in piercing the latest biological trends, including the proliferation of “omic sciences.”

“I was asked by a business journal in England, The Economist, which was the most important omic science for biotechnology, and I gave them the obvious answer: it was that science called econ-omics,” he chuckled.

“So we now have a culture which is based on everything must be high-throughput,” Brenner continued. “I like to call it low-input, high-throughput, no-output biology.

“I’m not taking advantage of my advanced years in order to make cracks about this. But … this is not the way to solve problems,” he said.

The discovery of a gene, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that the protein it encodes has an important function. “You’ve got to have a theory on how the cell works,” Brenner said.

The same goes for translational research.

“The promise of the human genome is that we will have millions of targets … and we can take all the chemicals, and we can just do high-throughput analysis on all of these and find all the drugs for everything for the future … from bench to bedside.

“I think this is totally wrong.”

For one thing, this approach requires a “therapeutic hypothesis,” that blocking a particular target could affect a physiological function or prevent a disease.

“It is very rare that I have seen coming out of basic labs hypotheses of these kinds,” Brenner argued, “mostly because most people in basic labs don’t know anything about human physiology and pathology.

“So I believe that the process should be the other way around. I think what we can do very well now is to go from bedside to bench.”

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Ewan Birney, the most successful biologist from UK, used a figure to explain what Brenner should have been doing instead.

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4 comments to Incredibly Powerful Speech from Brenner, but Ewan Birney Disagrees

  • Flatleybartfarst

    Hmm, I thought Charles Darwin might be the “most successful biologist from the UK”.

  • samanta

    Who is Darwin? I do not see his name in any ENCODE paper.

  • Flatleybartfarst

    I dug into this 2006 article a bit. I’m not entirely sure what point you are making here Manoj. Brenner wrote this in 2006, just before the NGS thing really took off. At the time he was behind ‘Compass Genetics’ or ‘Population Genetics Ltd’ which, so far as i can tell, was founded on the kid of thinking shown in his speech. (incidentally, I hear he was also talking NGS down – in particular Solexa). Now here we are in 2014, and big sequencing is massive – with many papers and breakthroughs. Illumina is worth 20Bn and Pop Gen Ltd, so far as i can tell, is in scientific and commercial obscurity. So, Brenners ‘econ-omics’ (har de har) actually shows he was completely wrong at the time – and the NGS adherents have been right.

  • samanta

    Well, there are two separate questions here – (i) which business wins, (ii) what is good science. Given the track record of scientists in running businesses and doing ‘marketing’, I would have taken Brenner’s words with a grain of salt, if he managed to grow a business to $20Bn. However, his points about science are worth considering, and in that matter, the perspectives of NGS and other high-throughput technologies are different for those of you working on bacterial genomes and those working on ‘human research’, ‘translational research’, ‘epigenomic psychiatry’, etc. You probably run a tight no-bullshit shop and think everyone does things the same way, but that is definitely not the case for those fields blessed by government. I know it from many years of experience of interacting with ‘translational reseachers’ and basic researchers. As a recent example, I have been checking a bunch of papers on linking epigenomics and human psychological conditions and was truly appalled. Have you seen any of positivity lady’s papers? It is unbelievable, how many NIH grants she got by selling complete snake oil.

    So essentially Brenner is arguing about the top-down system of funding not working, and I think he is right.

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