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Myhrvold: Moore s Law Applies to Systems Biology, With a Few Caveats

SEATTLE, April 25 (GenomeWeb News) - Moore's law doesn't just govern information technology, according to former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold, who claims that the same pattern of rapid innovation is possible in systems biology -- although the drivers are very different.


Speaking at the Institute for Systems Biology's "Computational Challenges in Systems Biology" symposium here yesterday, Myhrvold, who founded Microsoft Research and now heads VC firm Intellectual Ventures, noted that Genbank is doubling every 18 months. This is the same rate at which Intel's Gordon Moore famously predicted that processor speed would continue to double while the cost of chips would decrease.


This prediction "became self-fulfilling" by the computer industry, said Myhrvold, and led to a "virtuous cycle" in which cheaper, faster computers led to new software applications, which drove consumer demand, which in turn accelerated development of even faster, cheaper computers.


Systems biology may continue to grow at an exponential pace on its own, he said, "but it won't happen without demand."


The virtuous cycle for biology is quite different than that for computing, he noted, because it's "not based on popular applications." Rather, he said, it will be driven by research goals. "The more we know, the more we need to learn," he said.


With the human genome in hand, researchers have only just begun to think about new biological questions they can ask. To do so, they require new types of information, which could lead to innovative methods for increasing the throughput and lowering the cost of current methods for generating biological data. These reductions in cost will drive volume, he said, placing data in the hands of more researchers who will ask new questions in order to start the process over again.


But that's not to say that commercial interests will not play a role in the innovation cycle for biology. Myhrvold noted that IT development in the 1980s was primarily funded by DARPA and other USdefense agencies, before consumer pocketbooks became the primary source of R&D funding. Systems biology, he said, is likely to follow a similar path. Today, the field is still largely based on the economic model of the Human Genome Project and other large, publicly funded efforts, but eventually "it will be driven by commercial concerns," he said.


Computational science will ultimately be the key to advancing what he described as "digital biology." Just as Isaac Newton provided a "fundamental language" for physics, Myhrvold said, "algorithms and digital information will become the language of biology."


However, he cautioned, it will take some time for computational biologists to gain acceptance as "real biologists" among their peers. His advice? "You have to be able to ask questions and solve problems that you couldn't do any other way." The only other option, he said, is a common fallback for emerging disciplines in academia: "Wait for people to die."

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