Genetic profiling while you wait


Well, not quite, but according to a piece in The Times scientists at Oxford Nanopore have developed a new technique which could bring the cost of individual profiling down to $1,000 or less. Knowledge of our individual genetic defects and health risks would, of course, be a mixed blessing. On one hand, medical interventions - and even, before too long, replacement of faulty genes - could not only increase average lifespans but also improve the quality of life for many. On the other hand, there may be little benefit in the knowledge that you have a serious health risk for which there is as yet no cure, and the inner hypondriac in many of us needs little encouragement to flourish.

The point is that the first human genome sequence was published in 2001, at an estimated cost of $4 billion. The rate of technological advance since then has been staggering. It even puts the continual rapid advances in IT in the shade. Technologies such as this come seemingly from nowhere but can soon have a pervasive influence on our lives. The instant availability of information and communications on the move which we now take for granted was the stuff of science fiction only a generation ago. The next generation may also take for granted the availability of personalised preventive healthcare and marvel at the primitive nature of medicine in the noughties.

All this makes a nonsense of the fashionable concept of sustainability, which assumes that what we do today we simply do more of tomorrow. Progess isn't smooth; society is subject to a series of disruptive developments which are unpredictable and change our assumptions about resource use overnight. Rather than routinely predicting catastrophe, we should have more faith in the human race's innovative capacity and adaptability.

Guest author Martin Livermore is the Director of The Scientific Alliance