Pioneering scientists have now mapped the entire human genome, building a huge database of all the human gene sequences. This database, however, is only the beginning. The information is raw and undefined, and much of it is superfluous data that just gets in the way. 'It's simply a listing of 3.5 billion base pairs - sequences of letters containing genes - with no meaning,' says John Couch, CEO of DoubleTwist, a genomic software company with high-speed tools to analyse such data. 'We put in the punctuation and some spacing, so that you can see what the words are. But no-one really knows what they mean yet.' The challenge now is to match that information to real-world data - DNA sequences of actual people, statistics on populations and conditions, family trees and histories, precise medical information.
But even as pharmaceutical companies look at the opportunities this will create for new mass-market drugs and remedies, there's more to the genome than just a large-scale business opportunity. The genome can also be a resource for individuals not just as consumers of healthcare products, but as producers of them. Here's how: consider the genome the equivalent of the huge body of music in the world (ignoring issues of copyright).
The internet allows anyone to have access to that resource - after all, it's just information - and tools such as DoubleTwist's allow users to manipulate the data.
It works like this: DoubleTwist offers its software online, on a subscription basis. The tools do tasks such as comparing genetic sequences, matching them to related proteins or other genes, and tracking correlations in their data. (Behind the scenes are hundreds of powerful servers performing calculations and delivering results over the internet to users.) They can also find medical research on specific topics from a broad range of medical databases, including patents and drug information. That means that amateur biologists, and university or even high-school students can do their own research projects with the same tools as professionals working in well-funded research organisations.
John Couch's 16-year-old son is using the system to study the curious outbreaks of deformed frogs that are beginning to trouble scientists worldwide. Jordan Couch was particularly intrigued by one paper by Dr Stanley Sessions. It posited that the frogs suffered from a parasite that was hijacking their genes so they would grow extra limbs. The young man wrote to Sessions, and this month the scientist and the student will go out into the wild to catch some specimens of snails that are thought to pass on the parasites. They will analyse and compare the gene sequences using software tools. Will they find anything? Who knows? That's what science is about - testing hypotheses to find answers. The magic is in the combination of the public gene data, other data sources and the creativity of individuals.
Can DoubleTwist make more money by selling cheaply to a broad audience than by limiting its software to an elite? Couch believes so. The internet's record so far indicates he'll be right.
Esther Dyson will be chairing the UK Internet Summit 2000, supported by WPP, the New Statesman and Management Today, on Wednesday 11 October. For details contact Hugo Tagholm: firstname.lastname@example.org.