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What's ahead in science? MIT professors offer views

When Science magazine recently asked a collection of scientists what they see in the future for science, two MIT faculty members were among those who responded.

Dr. Harvey F. Lodish, professor of biology and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedcal Research, replied:

"By using techniques involving in vitro fertilization, it is already possible to remove one cell from the developing embryo and characterize any desired region of DNA. Genetic screening of embryos before implantation may soon become routine.

It will be possible, by sequencing important regions of the mother's DNA, to infer important properties of the egg from which the person develops. This assumes that predictions of protein structure and function will be accurate enough so that one can deduce, automatically, the relevant properties of many important proteins, as well as the regulation of their expression (for example, how much will be made at a particular stage in development in a particular tissue of cell type) from the sequence of genomic DNA alone.

All of this information will be transferred to a supercomputer, together with information about the environment-including likely nutrition, environmental toxins, sunlight and so forth. The output will be a color movie in which the embryo develops into a fetus, is born, and then grows into an adult, explicitly depicting body size and shape and hair, skin and eye color.

Eventually the DNA sequence base will be expanded to cover genes important for traits such as speech and musical ability; the mother will be able to hear the embryo-as an adult-speak or sing."

Dr. Isadore M. Singer, Institute Professor of professor of mathematics, replied:

"In the last decade, ideas from quantum field theory have produced startling results in geometries of two, three, and four dimensions. Using mostly formal path integrals, physicists have obtained new formulas and relationships in mathematical fields far removed from traditional mathematical physics. Geometers are trying to incorporate these novel methods into mathematics.

I expect that the mathematical structure underlying geometric quantum field theories will soon be clarified and give an even more powerful tool for studying low-dimensional geometries. As a result, within a decade the classification of all compact smooth three- and four-dimensional manifolds will be completed. In particular, we will be able to answer Poincare's almost-century-old question: Is every bounded three-dimensional manifold without holes an ordinary three-dimensional sphere?

We may be as naive about four dimensions today as scientists and philosophers were about two dimensions in 1820 just prior to the discovery of hyperbolic geometry. What we now call exotic or fake four-dimensional spaces could give revolutionary new models in cosmology.

And surely a complete understanding of how strands link in three-dimensional space will illuminate DNA unraveling and DNA recombination."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 26, 1995.

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