Welcome to episode 255 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to chat a little bit about the Redwood Genome Project which is an endeavor to understand the redwood on a genomic scale in order to better protect and restore the forests. This project was launched by the Save the Redwoods League and it’s a little bit involved understanding why … The first question that may come to your mind if you haven’t heard of this before is why would we need to understand trees at the genomic level? We’ve heard of precision medicine for humans where specific diseases can be pinpointed to areas in our genetic code. But why would we need to do this for trees and what are the implications of that?
This is a multiyear effort to sequence both the coast redwood and the giant sequoia genomes. Just to give you an idea, the Human Genome Project cost close to $3 billion to do. This was back when Bill Clinton was president basically in the ’90s. Since then, the next gen sequencing technology has really brought the cost down to around a thousand dollars give or take. Ultimately we’re benefiting albeit slowly but we are benefiting from all of the health related, more pinpoint cures and analysis that’s possible as a result of that project.
Just to give you an idea of scale, apparently the sequoias have 3X the genomic material that humans do and the redwoods apparently have 10 times the amount of genetic material which with today’s technology, it’s not as big a mountain to climb as sequencing the human genome. But nonetheless it is a tremendous amount of material and it also gives you an awful lot of respect for these giant trees. I had no idea that their genomes were quite so large.
I would have taken for granted that the human genome was the most complex.
Yeah. That was my initial thought as well. Why would they do this? Why is this something that will be beneficial? Well, in order for the forests to survive in this new environment of climate change, they need to have genetic diversity. Trees have different genetics as humans do so there’s a broad variety of trees even within the same species and some are more resistant to things like drought or disease than others would be. In the past since we weren’t maybe as aware of these things, when there are reforestation efforts that took place, they were specifically aimed at a particular kind of tree. The diversity that the ability for the species to survive due to that diversity is just not there anymore because trees of one type were planted as a result of reforestation efforts and now genetic diversity is much lower. Both at a macro scale, the size of these forests which is vastly reduced and the micro scale which is the genetic diversity, this is different from any other point in these forests’ and trees’ existence. These trees have been around for thousands of years, right?
Long before human beings really were quite so dominant a species. They’ve been around for quite a long time, and in order for them to continue to be around, we need to start taking steps to understand these trees better so that forest managers can more depthly manage the tree populations and get rid of the trees that might need to go and keep and encourage the growth of the ones that need to stay.
Dirk, when you take a look at this project, what were your impressions and how did it strike you?
Well, looking at the project and adding it into your preamble and your comments here, I think it all makes sense. It’s all logical. It’s all sensible. You asked the question earlier about why would we care about the genomics of trees? Other people might ask themselves why would we care about the genomics of trees? Looking at it at that level, I think we should care about the genomics of everything. Humanity is for a variety of reasons that often we aren’t even consciously aware of pursuing knowledge, pursuing growth, pursuing understanding. Understanding things at the genomic level is one part of that. Now that we’re able to from a powers of 10 perspective focus in a little bit more deeply, we should because it is consistent with whether our agenda is, oh, someday the earth way in the future won’t be viable to live on. We have to get to the point where we’re living on other planets or even if it’s more parochial and short term, the fact is the more knowledge and understanding we have of the world, the more successful we’ll be in those pursuits.
Looking at things on the genomic level just makes sense whether it’s a tree. The better we get it all, the better we’ll understand ourselves, we’ll understand where we came from, we’ll understand where we’re going and we can have more agency in the architecture of our futures.
Right. I think the core of the argument there is correct that we’re opening up the book of life which is essentially what genomics is. It’s a code from which living things are able to reproduce based on that code. We’re only beginning to unpack that information. The technology obviously for sequencing it is only become plentiful and inexpensive over the past 5 to 10 years which means that the accumulation of knowledge around genomics has just begun. Not to mention the fact that we need this massive computer storage in order to be able to house all this information and to analyze it. Once again computing technology has become cheaper, faster, better which is giving us the leverage to get into this kind of analysis only now.
I think we can see just from the diversity really of genomics related projects whether it’s the Human Genome Write Project which is the next step for the Human Genome Project. In this case, it’s to synthesize a human genome, or in this case, exploring the genome of one very specific plant species which is an extremely important one. These are at the edges of … I’m not saying that the projects themselves are obscure but it’s at the edges of what science is capable of right now. I think we’ll find that the innovation in these sectors is happening at the edges and sort of progressing towards the center. By the center, I mean the mainstream adoption and understanding of these things.
In a decade or so, it’s not going to be unusual to have precision medicine routines where you are sequenced and your medication is built just for you just in the same way perhaps genomic tools related to planning around landscaping might be a much more common possibility when you think about the way our environment is changing and we’re going to need this sort of action and planning to take place in order for there to be any sort of realistic growth of plants and the landscape generally speaking if we’re talking about a major change in the way our climate is.
I see these things as percolating and one of the privileges we have on the show is that we get to dig into these things. Dirk, when we talk about genomics and biology, it really does feel to me like this is where the next wave of innovation comes from is if the … We are just seeing the initial wave, and it’s going to crest in our lifetimes. Is that the impression that you’re taking away from all of this?
I think there’s truth there. A lot of discovery through biology and the leveraging of those discoveries with technology will have massive impacts on our lives. Well, the human animal specifically but then also other things like redwood trees that are important to the ecosystem and have a place in the world and the impact on them in ways to the average person will be completely invisible will be significant as well. For me, for many years now I’ve been less interested in biology in general and more interested in specific advances in understanding humans particularly a triangulation of fields.
I’m going to use the term that’s used by the leading journal in the space that I’ll call psychoneuroendocrinology so the psychology with neuroscience with endocrinology, endocrine sciences. We are really reaching a point of understanding humanity. For all of human history, it’s been medicine men. It’s been philosophers. It’s been armchair psychologists. We are now instrumenting and understanding the rogue behavior of humans as beings and it’s not in the hand wavy, freewill rubbish that we’re accustomed to. We’re stupid, predictable animals just like a cat or a dog or something else at the end of the day, much more complex of course but fairly predictable and fairly understandable.
What’s exciting about that, and I’m sure some people would feel demoralized by that, I’m excited about it because it will really allow us to optimize our systems, our environments, who and what we are as individuals and as a collective to be healthier, to be happier, to behave in more sensible ways that are more aligned with the greater good and the wholistic systems in which we live. Biology writ large, like massive innovations for sure. But I think, for me, the Holy Grail in that is the stuff that’s at the kernel of humanity and that is stuff that is being figured out right now, understood, operationalized. That’s what inspires and excites me.
Yeah. I know that’s an area of focus for you and I think it dovetails nicely with all of the bio and biotech related things that we discussed on the show. Getting back to this Redwood Genome Project, I think there is an opportunity here as we understand the complexity underlying life on this planet so much greater than maybe what our initial assumptions might be. My naïve thought or our naïve thought that human beings would be the most complex genomic animal when in fact there’s a plant … Who knows? There may be other plants or animals with even larger genomes that we don’t know.
That makes me interested. I wonder what is the blue whale’s genome. How does it compare to ours? How about the dolphin?
Sure. Ultimately, by understanding the code that underpins all of us and life on this planet, I think there’s an opportunity there not necessarily to manipulate things so they’re better for humanity which of course is an end that we’ll strive towards whether or not it’s intentional but also to harmonize, to have a way of existing with life on earth that’s maybe a little bit less about destroying things in our way and a little bit more about coexisting. I know that’s going to be a … Maybe that’s a loaded statement. Maybe it isn’t but it seems apparent to me that understanding the underpinnings of genomics in a way through the Redwood Genome Project and others like it we have a better chance of harmonizing our existence here.
Listeners, while you’re listening to the show, if you hear something that you like, you can go to thedigitalife.com where we’ve included links to just about everything that we’ve mentioned. That’s just one L in The Digital Life and go to the page for this episode to check it out. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. If you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R and thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 255 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.