The One Billion Map

May 01, 2013

For a network scientist few things can be more exciting that when the US government commits $100 million a year for its most massive network mapping initiative ever: obtain a map of the connectome, a complete circuitry of the brain. The effort’s scale and complexity only compares to Google’s mighty operation to map out the WWW and Facebook’s ambition to map out the world’s social circuitry. Yet, it also reminds us of our biggest map-making challenge to date: the lack of a map of the interactome, representing the full list of molecular interactions between the genes in a human cell. The absence of this map remains the major barrier between the $3 billion investment into genomics and our ability to cure human disease.

A car with dysfunctional lights has many similarities to a human with a disease. There is one difference, however: if we get the car to a mechanic, we are certain that he will be able to fix it. Why can the mechanic, with far less education than a doctor, guarantee to fix our car, while many human diseases remain untreated? To begin with, the mechanic has the complete parts list. Well, so does the doctor: the Human Genome Project offered for the first time the full inventory of the cell’s components, a comprehensive list of genes, proteins and RNAs. We fully expected that this parts list would result in a bonanza of new drugs and treatments. It did not. In 2000, the year before the human genome was unveiled, the FDA approved over a hundred drugs. This number fell to about twenty a year a decade later.

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