Home' Technology Review : January February 2011 Contents Notebooks 11
place—13 in Japan—hybrids have gained
only 3 percent of the country’s market
for new cars. Plug-in electric vehicles are
more costly, require large-scale invest-
ment in recharging infrastructure, and
are more alien to consumers. Absent any
dramatic change to market conditions,
can we really hope they will be more pop-
ular than hybrids?
A more optimistic scenario would
require strong national standards for
new vehicles, similar to regulations
now being contemplated by California
and the U.S . Environmental Protection
Agency. The EPA already requires 40
percent reductions in fuel consumption
and greenhouse-gas emissions by 2016,
and it is considering further mandatory
decreases of up to 6 percent per year
from 2017 to 2025. Automakers could
meet such standards at first with better
conventional engines and gas hybrids.
But they would later be forced to invest
in advanced plug-in technologies, to
achieve the steep improvement needed to
This optimistic scenario is supported
by the existence of large federal and state
subsidies for plug-in electric vehicles, and
by a strengthening commitment to them
in China. While battery technology will
always be expensive, the right combina-
tion of strong policy, strong competition,
and consumer enthusiasm could speed
the adoption of these cars.
daN sperliNG is di r ector oF th e i Nstitute oF traN s-
portatioN stu d ies at th e u Niversity oF cali For Nia,
davis, aNd author oF the Book Two Billion Cars.
sequencing the human genome
has profoundly changed our
understanding of biology and dis-
ease, writes david altshuler.
When I was in school at MIT and
Harvard in the 1980s and 1990s, I
was taught that there were 100,000 or
so human genes, every one encoding a
protein. The properties of those genes
were unknown. Today, I teach that our
genome contains only 21,000 protein-
coding genes. To our surprise, there are
thousands of additional genes that don’t
encode proteins. All of these genes have
been described in great detail.
I was taught that the parts of the
genome not encoding proteins were “junk.”
Today, we know that this junk makes up
three-quarters of our functional DNA.
Parts of it help exquisitely control where
and when genes are active in the body.
I was taught that “genetic diseases,”
such as cystic fibrosis, are caused by muta-
tion of a single gene, with only a small
handful of these mutations known. Today,
precise causes are known for 2,800 of
these rare single-gene disorders.
I was taught nothing about the more
complex genetics of common diseases.
Today, we are learning at dizzying speed
about the interplay of genes and environ-
ment in diabetes, heart disease, and other
common conditions. In the past three
years alone more than 1,000 genetic risk
factors have been found (an increase of
perhaps 50-fold), contributing to more
than 100 common diseases.
Such advances would have come far
later, if at all, without the Human Genome
Project (see “The Human Genome, a
Decade Later,” p. 40). But a body of knowl-
edge is not its only legacy. It also changed
the way biological research is performed.
I was trained to view scientific data as
the private property of each investigator.
Human genetics research groups were
locked in a “race” to discover each disease
gene, and there were winners and losers.
This often led to fragmentation of effort
and yielded results irreproducible by oth-
ers. Data was collected by hand and stored
in paper notebooks.
The Human Genome Project held the
revolutionary view that data collected
should be freely available to all. Today this
view prevails in genomics and many other
fields of biology and medicine. Data is
shared online by scientists the world over.
Today, thanks in no small part to the
genome project’s example, investigators
working on the same disease often publish
together. Combining clinical and genetic
data this way increases the statistical
robustness of the claimed findings and
makes for highly reproducible results.
Of course, knowledge of the human
genome alone is not sufficient to cure
disease. It will always be the case that
creativity, hard work, and good fortune
are needed to translate biological data
into medical progress. But without the
information, understanding, and cul-
tural changes brought on by the genome
project, the benefits to patients would be
much further off.
david altshuler is a FouNdiNG MeMBer, the deputy di-
rector, aNd the chieF acadeMic oFFicer oF the Broad
i Nstitute oF harvar d aNd M it, aNd p roF essor oF
G e Netics aN d oF Me diciNe at harvard Me dical s chool.
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