Twenty-year bet on the power of the genome

A 20-year bet, in the spirit of Richard Feynman’s losing wager against micromachined motors, over the power of the genome to control the development of living organisms versus paranormal effects could hinge on how much compute power will be needed to demonstrate it.

The bet, between Professor Lewis Wolpert of University College, London and former biochemist and author Rupert Sheldrake, stems from a debate held in March at the University in Cambridge over whether genes control development or whether, in Sheldrake’s view, the result of ‘morphic fields’.

Sheldrake argued that science has been promising to establish a theory that describes how a single genome can lead to all the different parts of living creatures since the early 1960s and has, so far, failed. He maintains that DNA does nothing more than provide the recipe for proteins that, in his view, is not enough. Wolpert argues that the interactions between proteins and between them and DNA provide the control necessary to built complex lifeforms.

Technologies such as synthetic biology, which modify genomes to have organisms manufacture chemicals or perform specific tasks, rely on the idea that the genome and its associated proteins provide all the information necessary.

Wolpert agreed to a bet with a deadline of 2029 that biologists would be able to predict the features of an organism based purely on its genome and the initial state of the egg that contains it. However, Wolpert told E&T that the 20-year timescale for the demonstration is “quite generous” to Sheldrake’s position, believing that it may take 40 years for all the theories to be developed and for the compute power to be available to predict the outcome of a given genome. For the purposes of the bet, it will be the genome of a nematode worm.

“It will require an immense amount of computing power,” said Wolpert. “To show all the proteins interacting and understand all the interactions within the cells. I doubt if I will win the bet because 20 years isn’t enough time.”

The wager, for a case of vintage port, is in the spirit of famous scientific bets, such as Feynman’s staking of $1000 against the idea of an artificial motor being made that is less than 1/64 inch long. He lost to enginer Bill McLellan before even micromachining had been devised.

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