A Netflix for Poop: DNA Sequencing's Next Turn

Illustration by Bloomberg

Eric Schadt dreams about poop.

A famed researcher in the genetics field, Schadt envisions a day when DNA sequencers will drop far enough in price and process samples fast enough to make the analysis of our everyday biological functions a practical affair. As of this year, an entire human genome can be processed in a day for about $1,000. Improve on those figures by an order of magnitude or two, and Schadt sees the arrival of special toilets in our homes that would gather stool samples for genetic tests.

“I think of it like a Netflix model,” he says. “Where you take the sample from your toilet every day and mail it out to a sequencing service. Then you get an e-mail report back about what bugs are showing up in your area, what your diet looks like, and any disruptions in your microbiome that might be a concern.”

(Hear that, Netflix? There’s hope for the Qwikster brand yet.)

Schadt has a quirky sort of personality, but he’s not joking. He’s the director of the Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and chief science officer at Pacific Biosciences, a DNA sequencing machine maker. Over the past few years, Schadt has built up a reputation as one of the more daring thinkers when it comes to merging the worlds of biology and information technology.

After the first human genome was sequenced, people hoped clear on/off switches for diseases would be found in snippets of the code. It turns out, however, the situation is far more complex, with lots of other factors contributing to disease. Schadt, along with many other scientists, wants to gather huge volumes of genetic and environmental data to paint a richer picture of how illness comes about. “Diseases are not made up of single genes but of networks of genes,” Schadt says. “It is 100 subtle hits to 100 genes that jump you into a disease state.”

Schadt, who likes to wear the same style of khaki shorts and white collared shirt every day, predicts a tough slog toward unraveling the complexity of cancer and other scourges. In the meantime, there is much measurement to be done. “In my mind, the most actionable results we could achieve today for human well-being are going to be in routine surveillance of environments,” he says. “You get sick every year not because of variations in your DNA but because you are bombarded with bugs that want to make you sick.”

Cities could collect samples from airports, train stations, and emergency rooms and “build up a map, sort of like a weather map, that show pathogen flows over time.” Start data mining sewage systems, and you could probably detect the arrival of something like H1N1 early enough to prevent an outbreak, Schadt says. “We are finding viruses specific to the foods you eat, like chicken, tomatoes, peppers, and garlic,” he says. “If we have different sewage substations, we could address the diet compositions of the whole population and correlate it with health.”

Schadt likes to say his daughter’s favorite book is Everyone Poops, and he’s a firm believer in this idea of a stool service that would advise you on things you could do to improve your health, such as changing your diet or washing your hands more when a flu appears in the neighborhood. “I see daily sequencing as one of the biggest markets for this technology,” he says. “You’re talking about monitoring every house to see what is going on.”

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