Jonathan Rothberg GRD ’91, the inventor of high-speed DNA sequencing, said his original motivation for developing the technology came from the Peabody Museum.
“I dreamed and dreamed about bringing back dinosaurs,” he said.
Rothberg was speaking to over a hundred people in the Burke Auditorium in Kroon Hall in an event titled “Decoding Our Past: Jurassic Park, Neanderthal and You,” hosted by the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He highlighted how the technology of high-speed sequencing — which allows thousands of genome sequences to be read concurrently — is doing things today that people could not have dreamed of half a century ago, providing new gene targets for drug development and fueling the rise of personalized medicine. He also outlined how he and his new startup accelerator, 4Catalyzer, are working to make high-speed sequencing more affordable and accessible and invited members of the Yale community to join the team.
His excitement about sequencing dinosaur genomes peaked when he came across papers claiming to have isolated DNA from amber dating to 30 million years ago, Rothberg told the audience. If that DNA could be isolated and sequenced, he figured he could do the same with dinosaur genomes, he explained. But he was dissuaded from the effort by Svante Pääbo, a Swedish biologist who specializes in evolutionary genetics, who warned that DNA samples from 65 million years ago are typically poorly preserved and that the findings of the published papers may not be replicable.
“I’m glad he didn’t hang up the phone,” Rothberg said. Though the two men did not end up sequencing dinosaur DNA, their conversation led them to collaborate on sequencing the Neanderthal genome. Comparisons between the human and Neanderthal genome may yield insights into how the modern man is different from its primate ancestors, Rothberg observed.
He still dreams of sequencing dinosaurs someday, he said.
“For full disclosure, I have not given up,” Rothberg said, drawing laughter from the audience.
For now, he is focusing his efforts on developing new technologies that will improve healthcare. Through 4Catalyzer, he seeks to support startups that solve some of the challenging problems of the 21st century. 4Catalyzer currently manages four companies and has its headquarters in Guilford, Conn., said Rothberg.
The organization is seeking people with a wide range of talents, and there is no better place to find them than at Yale, said Manfred Lee, head of device strategy at Butterfly Network, one of 4Catalyzer’s companies. Over 10 employees of 4Catalyzer mingled with members of the audience at the hour-long reception that followed Dr. Rothberg’s presentation.
Undergraduates and graduates are increasingly interested in hearing from people who are leaders not just in the sciences but also in business and entrepreneurship, said David Skelly, director of the Peabody Museum and professor of ecology. Skelly pointed to Rothberg and his employees as examples of people who have exciting, dynamic careers that are not in academia, but still possess a deep intellectual component. He added that it is important to show people how there are different ways to have fulfilling careers in the sciences.
Students and faculty at the talk said they were delighted by the University’s initiative to bring in Rothberg and his team.
“Jonathan Rothberg is very influential in the biotechnology industry, and we wanted to see what his vision for the future is,” said Linda Fong GRD ’17. “It is heartening to know that Yale graduate students can make a difference in the world.”
“Decoding Our Past” is the first in a series of talks that Skelly hopes to organize in honor of the 150th anniversary of Peabody museum in 2016.