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At intersection of digital and life sciences revolutions

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Last week a group of technology titans announced the establishment of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, a $3-million award for each scientist honoured, more than twice the sum of the Nobel Prize. The award comes at a time when the life sciences are in the middle of a scientific revolution no less awe-inspiring than the splitting of the atom.

The founders of the prize include Art Levinson, chairman of both Apple and Genentech; Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook; Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google; and Yuri Milner, a Russian Internet tycoon, who previously launched a similar prize for physics. What they share in common are fortunes and empires built on digital innovations such as search, e-mail and social media. What they are celebrating is also a phenomenon of the digital era but in a way not widely appreciated.

That is because biology — indeed, the very secrets of life and evolution — is experiencing a period of innovation and discovery that owes much to the power of computation. An organism’s genetic blueprint, or genome, can be turned into millions or billions of bits of digital information in a process known as sequencing. In more than a decade since the end of the Human Genome Project, there has been an explosion of sequencing technology and an enormous acceleration in speed.

In addition to humans, the genomes of everything from songbirds to sunflowers, down to the smallest bacteria and viruses, are being sequenced. The makeup of DNA can be recorded and examined in an electronic blueprint, not unlike the pixels in a digital photo. The applications are only gradually coming into view, and there have been disappointments, but the promise is enormous.

Diseases might be conquered by examining the genome of various pathogens or cells and modifying them. In 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute reported that they used computers to design a synthetic chromosome and then transplanted it into a living cell controlled only by the synthetic material. New techniques are allowing accurate genome sequences to be made from single human cells; according to the journal Nature, this could speed up and reduce the cost of screening embryos for in vitro fertilization, picking the one likely to produce a healthy baby. At Harvard and other places, work is being done to develop artificial organelles that can be incorporated into algae, plants and even human cells and can perform specific and valuable functions. And sequencing is potentially valuable for unlocking new drugs that target specific illnesses, although it is difficult and there have already been plenty of failures.

Eleven researchers were named the first winners of the lucrative new prize. Their accomplishments range widely, not only in genomics. The founders hope to shine a light on scientists who often are overlooked in our celebrity-saturated society and to encourage a new generation. That’s good, but the real powerhouse of funding for basic biomedical research is the federal government, and its support must be sustained and expanded. We stand at the intersection of both the digital and life sciences revolutions, a suitable moment to salute explorers peering over the next horizon and to ensure that the potential of these revolutions can be fully realized.

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