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The new biology on the silver screen

Pacific.Biosciences69SM.jpgThe Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was the place to be yesterday evening for conference-goers at the American Society of Human Genetic meeting in Washington DC. The gene sequencing company Pacific Biosciences had taken over the museum for a premier screening of a documentary film the company had made called “The New Biology.”

It is certainly a beautifully produced film. John Rubin, a cognitive scientist-turned-documentary filmmaker who directed it, said in the post-movie panel that one of the reasons he took on the project was that “I wouldn’t have to say ‘cut’ whenever someone said the word ‘mitochondria’”. And indeed, it contains pretty detailed interviews with scientists such as systems biologist Leroy Hood, cancer biologists Todd Golub and Gary Nolan, geneticist Yusuke Nakamura, and bioinformatician Andreas Califano discussing flow cytometry, macrophages, gene interactions, and more. Weaving the interviews together, a soothing female voice narrates scientific concepts during image sequences showing waves of As, Cs, Ts, and Gs or complex animations suggesting the interconnectedness of data and of life.

“The New Biology” – that is, the phrase itself – is something of a brand that Pacific Biosciences has tried to foster, linking it not just to its new sequencing platform but to what the company refers to as a new movement in science. What it seems to mean in context of the film is scientists’ newfound ability to make sense of huge amounts of interconnected data. But the company also uses the phrase in reference to its SMRT sequencing system, a single molecule technology due out on the market early next year that that promises to let researchers eavesdrop on nature in real time. There were only a few specific references to SMRT sequencing (and some images of the machines themselves), but the phrase “the New Biology” punctuates the film, linking the concrete and the abstract.

It’s unclear quite for what audience the film is intended. Eric Schadt, Pacific Biosciences’s chief scientific officer, told viewers after the screening that he hopes it will be seen by everyone from scientists to middle school and high school students, to inspire them to a career in science.

It certainly does have an inspirational, if not a proselytizing feel. In the world it presents, there are no caveats to the new biology – no difficulties understanding how exactly a gene underlies a trait – no problems with analyzing enormous quantities of data, or translating findings to the clinic.

Perhaps one of the film’s most audacious claims is that “actionable results will be the hallmark of the New Biology”. Hearing that phrase, I couldn’t help but recall a poster I’d seen earlier yesterday evening at the meeting, in which researchers at Michigan State University tracked the use of molecular and genetic tests in the care of 135 patients. As many as 58% of the tests patients received were inappropriate or unnecessary, and added nothing to their care.

Image: Pacific Biosciences


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