Jack Uldrich
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A Million, a Billion, and a Trillion Reasons to Care About Genomics

Posted in Health Care


I speak to a great many student groups and I am often struck by how few of them appreciate the difference between one million, one billion and one trillion. (In the name of fairness, the same is true of many adults). Perhaps, it is because the three figures are all large numbers that most people don’t think there is an appreciable difference. Perhaps, it is because the words—million, billion, and trillion—the rhyme; or maybe it’s just because they’re dumb—or have had poor teachers. I really don’t know.

One way I have tried to convey the difference between the numbers is by explaining the figures in a different way. To wit:

One million seconds was 12 days ago;

One billion seconds was roughly 30 years ago;

One trillion seconds was approximately 30,000 years ago—28,000 B.C.!

My point with the analogy is that one trillion of anything is a really BIG number, and it is much, much different than one billion.

This analogy is important because on January 17, 2006 the Wellcome Sanger Institute announced it had archived it’s one billionth DNA sequence. It was an impressive accomplishment.

Well, today, Wired magazine reported that the prominent genetics institute sequenced its trillionth base of DNA. This is a one thousand-fold improvement in just over two years.

In my most recent book, Jump the Curve, I asked my readers to think of the first billion DNA sequences like a book that could shed some light on how genetic information might help deliver better health outcomes for all of society. Today, we have an additional 1000such “books.”

My broader point is that society is still in the early stages of understanding all of this genetic information; but as researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs continues to sequence an ever larger amount of genetic information it is a reasonable to expect that some of this information may just revolutionize how we diagnose, treat and, ultimately, cure a wide range of diseases.

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