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Scientifically speaking with Dr Jonathan Rothberg - the vision behind Gene Chaser

by Amels/Damen Yachting 21 Jul 08:14 PDT

Scientist, inventor and entrepreneur Dr Jonathan Rothberg has made no secret of combining his dedication to science and biology with life on board.

The name of his 55-metre Amels 180 Gene Machine already hints at the work he is best known for - inventing high-speed, "Next-Gen" DNA sequencing - and throughout 2020, he notably turned the main salon into a laboratory focussed on developing a coronavirus home test kit. It is therefore no surprise, that his new 55-metre Yacht Support Gene Chaser comes with a very scientific motivation. In a candid interview, Dr Rothberg shares the purposeful vision behind extending his on-water scientific and research facilities.

There is no doubt that the oceans contain knowledge that is needed for us to address our greatest challenges. Gene Chaser allows us to find them."

Could you tell me about your vision for Gene Chaser?

Gene Chaser brings cutting edge science and technology to all reaches of the globe, in an effort to address our biggest global challenges. Nature has been solving problems for 3.8 billion years — continually evolving new molecular functionality — and these nearly unlimited solutions are encoded in the DNA of organisms around the planet. The mobility of Gene Chaser to travel the planet makes it an unprecedented tool for humanity to discover and leverage these solutions, especially when coupled with the ability to study problems directly where they are occurring

Could you tell me more about what that means in terms of operations and planned research?

Our track record of continually delivering technologies to the world that are tectonic leaps forward means that we attract the very best and brightest scientists and engineers to our companies at 4Catalyzer. Gene Chaser, as a part of the 4Catalyzer ecosystem, gives these talented teams a direct perspective to the great challenges we face, and a conduit to developing the technologies and solutions needed to confront those challenges.

Is this also where the inspiration for her name comes from?

Nature holds the solutions. All that is needed is for us to pursue them.

You have mentioned that you will be going to go after genes to combat global warming and clean up the oceans and the air. How do you go about tackling such big issues and do you believe we can still find solutions to make improvements and eradicate these challenges?

We will tackle these big issues in the only way that has ever changed the world — as a small group of thoughtful and committed people, to reference the great Margret Mead. Yes, we absolutely can still find solutions and make improvements. We must.

Could you explain more about how the setup of Gene Chaser works and in particular enlighten us on the 'never before available technology'?

We live in a magical time, when three of humanity's great efforts — computational and algorithmic power now supercharged with a new AI known as deep learning; advanced engineering; and our understanding of genetics and biology as a results of high speed gene sequencing (hence the name Gene Machine for my main boat) — are able to join together in fundamental ways. An age of incredibly beneficial and helpful new tools is just beginning. The companies at 4Catalyzer are creating these tools, and Gene Chaser brings them where they are needed. To support the fast pace of creating and using new technology, Gene Chaser has extensive rapid prototyping capabilities — best in class 3D printing, CNC, laser cutting, and electronics fabrication are all on board. All of which complement the cutting edge molecular biology laboratory and high power computational infrastructure at the heart of the ship.

"It is estimated that more than 90% of species in the oceans are undiscovered."

Was a floating lab the ideal solution for the work you want to achieve and why?

Like space, the oceans are an enormous frontier for human exploration. It is estimated that more than 90% of species in the oceans are undiscovered. Previous efforts to understand ocean life have led to incredible medical and scientific breakthroughs. For example, a discovery in the biology of horseshoe crabs has been vital for Covid vaccines to be manufactured safely. In our case, operating in a Covid bubble on the Gene Machine allowed us to develop the first scalable and practical molecular home test, for Covid and any pathogen, known as Detect. Our ability to learn from nature and unlock the lessons that biology can teach us, means that we must go to where those lessons can be found. There is no doubt that the oceans contain knowledge that is needed for us to address our greatest challenges. Gene Chaser allows us to find them.

"Nature holds the solutions. All that is needed is for us to pursue them."

What would you say are the challenges of accommodating a lab and staff on board and what are the advantages?

The scientists, engineers, and crew on Gene Chaser are some of the most creative and passionate people working to solve planetary scale problems, so any challenges of being on board are quickly overcome. The advantages are being able to create a hyper productive environment for the best minds — alongside cutting edge tools and technology — in locations where the need is greatest.

Did the impact and global effect of the Covid pandemic influence your decision to develop Gene Chaser?

The Covid pandemic showed us just how fragile civilisation can be, and the power of biotechnology to save it. Gene Chaser is more important now than ever. And of course, allowed us to put our original lab on the Gene Machine to use for developing diagnostics.

Over the last year we have seen photos of the lab set up on Gene Machine - will that continue or will all scientific research move to Gene Chaser?

The boats will largely work in tandem, with the majority of scientific infrastructure being housed on Gene Chaser.

"Gene Chaser brings cutting edge science and technology to all reaches of the globe, in an effort to address our biggest global challenges."

We see more people using their yachts for science and philanthropic goals. Do you think in general people are taking a greater interest and responsibility in understanding our planet, our oceans and how we can protect them and learn from them?

Yes. We and others know that the real measure of success is the impact you have on those that are least fortunate. Butterfly network's whole body scanner was tested early on the Gene Machine, and is now not only the bestselling ultrasound in the world but is in use by over 100 charities and NGOs to bring medical imaging, for the first time, to 2/3rds of the world that never had it. Quantum-Si, the world's first next generation protein sequencer for research and diagnostics was conceived on the Gene Machine, as was Hyperfine Research, the world's first bedside MRI!

If you are looking back five years from now, what do you hope that your legacy with Gene Chaser will be?

The world will be a safer, cleaner, and more equitable place because of our work.

Gene Chaser at a glance

  • Yacht Support 5009 (55.5 metres / 182 ft)
  • Delivered 2021
  • 499 GT
  • 8 guests, 11 crew + Captain
  • Design by Damen Yachting

Visit Gene Chaser showcase

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