Technology giant Intel plans to bring in the blockchain technology into the world of genetic sequencing. One of their recent patent applications involves using the resource-intensive “Mining” operation of blockchain, to transform the complex process of genetic sequencing.
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) contain the genetic information for living organisms. Nucleobases make up DNA and RNA, and the order of these nucleobases determine the physical attributes of a living organism. Crux of genetic sequencing involves identifying the order of these nucleobases in DNA and RNA. The valuable information contained in this sequencing is used by researchers, who work towards identifying changes in genes. The researchers are then able to identify associations of these genes with various diseases. This information is very important to the pharmaceutical companies, who identify potential drug targets using this. The step-by-step analytical process is complex, requires large amount of calculations, besides ensuring the outcome of each step, as well as the final conclusion is properly secured. After all, if outcome of such valuable research is tampered with, not only is the research wasted, but such doctored research outcome could result into manufacturing drugs with adverse effects.
How can blockchain benefit genetic sequencing?
A blockchain is a distributed database comprised of two or more block records (referred to as “blocks”), which are linked together while adhering to a predetermined standard or protocol. Each block is a data structure, which contains link to the previous block, a payload, the hash value (or the unique secret identifier) of the payload, and a proof of work (POW). POW is a piece of data that takes a significant amount of time and computer processing cycles to produce. A combination of user, software and specialized hardware, commonly referred to as “Miner”, can update the blockchain by adding new blocks. Blockchain contains important security measures ensuring that miners can’t update blockchain improperly. This security measure typically requires the miner to furnish POW, which is reliable evidence that very significant amount of essentially large number-crunching operation was done, to create a new block. For e.g., the miner may need to use the POW of the last block of the blockchain, before creating a new block for that blockchain. If such significant computer processing involved can be used in identifying the sequence of nucleobases in DNA and RNA, and if such mathematical verification protocol can be utilized to guarantee the data integrity of the research outcome, genetic sequencing can benefit from blockchain. This is exactly what Intel is planning to do.
In their patent application, filed initially on June 2016, and released by the US Patent office recently, Intel has proposed using a sequence mining platform (SMP), which is a special type of computer. It consists of a processor, a machine-accessible storage medium, and a sequence manager within the storage medium. The sequence manager will determine the sequence of nucleobases. The storage medium also includes a blockchain manager that collects data for transactions for a blockchain, and supplies that data for the new block. The storage medium additionally has a sequence mining module (SMM) that uses the determined sequence of nucleobases to create POW for the new block. A particular POW, i.e. the sequence of nucleobases in this instance, is not only used for identifying that particular sequence, but also as a verification tool, since it will be used as a base for the next block. The POW algorithm is the key here according to Intel, since it simply makes it impractical for a cyber attacker to try and corrupt the blockchain. Ned Smith and Rajesh Poornachandran are the inventors associated with this patent.