The Genome Wager – scenes from an Italian restaurant.

There is something quite remarkable waiting, biding its time, in the cellars of the UK’s Wine Society. Actually I’m sure there are numerous remarkable things in the cellars of the Wine Society and sure as Alan Sugar, I’m not going to taste any of them!

In principle the bet sounds quite simple. Professor Lewis Wolpert has bet Dr Rupert Sheldrake that by May 1, 2029, given the genome of a fertilized egg of an animal or plant, we will be able to predict in at least one case all the details of the organism that develops from it, including any abnormalities.

Sounds reasonably straightforward eh? I mean, given the rate that our understanding is growing this must be a distinct possibility. Genomics, the study of an organisms entire hereditary mechanism is a burgeoning area of research and is producing astounding results – such as the much trumpeted identification of the human DNA nucleotide sequence in 2007. Alongside genomic research we have major strides taking place in proteomics, the study of the proteome (the set of proteins expressed by any cell at a particular time under particular conditions). New advances in methodology and technology, such as Ultrahigh and Ultra Performance Liquid Chromatography (UHPLC and UPLC) threaten to accelerate the pace of research by offering higher throughput and better and ‘cleaner’ data for genomic and proteomic research.

So what’s the bet about? Is it just a case of: ‘if not then, then later?’

What is Rupert Sheldrake’s beef?

Well, I had dinner with Dr Sheldrake once in a rather nice Italian restaurant, but can’t actually remember what he ate – fish I think, pretty sure it wasn’t beef.

But hey, let’s have some antipasto first!

So try this for starters: if even a fraction of Rupert Sheldrake’s ideas are true then not only is he going to (hopefully, for his sake) be sipping lots of port in his twilight years, the world of science will by then have undergone a paradigm shift of earth-not-flat proportions.

Talking of which, you might have come across of some of Sheldrake’s ideas if you are a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (most sentient species are). I know I am, but I had to stop reading them, after the first 3 or 4, or else I’d never again write anything myself! The late, great, Sir Terry, the UK’s second most read author, with some 65 million books sold, is a big fan of morphic resonance and this is The Sheldrake Big Idea.

So what’s it all about? And shall we all have something to drink? I think I might need it.

The problem is this: genomics may well be able to give us the sum total of an individual organism’s genes and proteomics may be able to tell us all the proteins that are being produced, but is that all there is? I mean it’s fantastic – don’t get me wrong, really, but is that all there is – to an organism?

The analogy often given is that of building a house – seeing the invoices and getting all the right materials delivered doesn’t tell you that much about what is going up on the site: synagogue or skyscraper, bungalow or beach house?

Sheldrake as a developmental biologist (may I call you Rupert and shall I pour this cheeky little Chianti?) believes not. He thinks there is something ‘not right’ with this picture, and to explain it he has invoked ‘fields’. Now I have to admit ‘fields’ have always given me trouble. While there is something very satisfying about a great array of iron filings around a magnet, and I fully appreciated electromagnetic fields while just brushing my teeth, physicists not being able to answer the actual ‘but-what-exactly-is-it?’ field question, without a sneaky sidetracking into scalar, vector, spinor or tensor fields, or invoking virtual photons has always given me a headache. But hey it’s what happens – fields are OK! So, Sheldrake has invented a morphic field to help explain how organisms develop, because he believes what’s on offer is singularly lacking.

And this has pissed a lot of people off. Physicists do fields not biologists (well, apart from field biologists).

Rupert (the fish looks wonderful!) suggests that there is a field within and around a morphic unit (such as an organism) which helps organize its structure and activity. Packaged along with this (“special 2 for 1 blow your brains offer!”) is the associated concept of morphic resonance – a type of positive feedback mechanism whereby the occurrence of a field influences and refines the development of subsequent morphic units making it easier for the form to exist. Simply put, that lemon sole (which really was delicious, glad I chose it as well) is partially a brilliant example of lemon sole-iness because of all the lemon soles that have gone before it.

“Oh yes, I seem to remember something about all this! Isn’t he a nutter?”

Well, yes the late esteemed editor of the journal Nature Sir John Maddox did famously call Rupert’s first book A New Science of Life a candidate for burning’ but that’s the great thing about Rupert (tiramisu for everyone?), he’s a proper scientist and when he comes up with ideas he suggests experiments to test them! And experimentation is of course at the heart of the scientific method. And experiments have been done, though biologists don’t necessarily agree with the results, and the latest addition of ‘Morphic Resonance; the Nature of Formative Causation’ contains even more suggestions for tests.

The point is this: we need new advances in methodology and technology, such as Ultrahigh and Ultra Performance Liquid Chromatography to enable us to get better and more accurate results, but we also need the Rupert Sheldrakes of the world (how about some cheese?) to be continually challenging us with new, exciting, testable ideas. Science is diminished without them.

And to finish: yes some port would be very nice! I hear the Quinta do Vesuvio is very good.

And who do I think is going to win the Genome Wager? Well, the clever money has got to be on Lewis Wolpert, but there is still a part of me that thinks:

Really, is that all there is?

(first published on the ‘bloghazard’ website)

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Author and scriptwriter, Terry Newman

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