How Scientists Are Adopting NFTs


The NFT for a digital collage titled “Everydays: The first 5000 days” by American artist Beeple (pictured) was recently sold for $ 69.3 million.Credit: Christie’s Images Limited 2021

From cat memes and music tracks to all manner of digital art, the bizarre and often quirky market for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is booming. And now science is on the bandwagon for those digital file ownership receipts that are being bought and sold online.

On June 8, the University of California, Berkeley auctioned off an NFT based on documents relating to the work of Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher James Allison for more than US $ 50,000. On June 17, the US Space Force – a branch of the US military – began selling a series of NFTs containing augmented reality images of satellites and space iconography.

And, from June 23 to 30, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, is auctioning an NFT containing the source code of the original web browser, along with a silent video of the current code. of seizure.

Meanwhile, biology pioneer George Church and a company he co-founded, Nebula Genomics in San Francisco, Calif., Have announced plans to sell an NFT of Church’s genome. Church, a geneticist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who helped launch the Human Genome Project, is well known for his controversial proposals, including the resurrection of the woolly mammoth and the creation of a dating app based on the DNA.

Silent black and white animated visualization of source code code for the World Wide Web

An animated visualization of the World Wide Web’s source code is part of an NFT auctioned by Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee in late June.Credit: Sotheby’s

The NFT craze has been celebrated online for the elevation of digital art – and simultaneously ridiculed as meaningless and for having a huge carbon footprint due to the massive computing power required to maintain it.

The arguments about NFTs in science are equally passionate, with some claiming that they inspire science to be presented to the public; a new method of fundraising; and even a way for people to earn royalties when drug companies buy access to their genomic data. Others say NFTs – which work the same as digital cryptocurrencies – are just unnecessary energy pouring into a market bubble that’s sure to burst.

“The more you watch it, the more you realize how crazy it is,” says Nicholas Weaver, who studies cryptocurrency at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley.

NFT screen

NFTs use the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to certify ownership of a file. NFTs are ‘minted’ the same way as cryptocurrency – using one of the many online platforms to add them to a tamper-proof blockchain ledger, typically at a cost of tens or hundreds of dollars – then sold online. People can buy and redeem these certificates the same way as physical collectibles, such as baseball cards. Art or data can be freely viewed online and downloaded in their original form; the NFT buyer simply has a verifiable receipt of ownership.

The NFT concept was born in the early 2010s but exploded this year: in March, for example, an NFT for a digital work by an American artist nicknamed Beeple sold for almost $ 70 million. The NFT market hit a record 30-day sales of $ 325 billion in early May. In June, it cooled off considerably, but it still records over $ 10 million in sales per week.

Michael Alvarez Cohen, director of innovation ecosystem development in the intellectual property office at the University of California at Berkeley, decided to try using NFTs to raise funds for the university. A team of designers scanned legal documents filed with the university, along with handwritten notes and faxes relating to Allison’s valuable findings. This work of art, called The fourth pillar, is available to everyone online, and the team created an NFT for ownership of the work.

After a short bidding war, the NFT sold on June 8 for 22 ethers (approximately US $ 54,000). The buyer was a group of Berkeley alumni called FiatLux DAO, founded days earlier by the same blockchain experts who had advised Berkeley on how to create the NFT in the first place. The money will be split between the NFT auction site foundation, a Berkeley research fund and carbon offsets.

“It’s an interesting combination of showing the world these historical documents, and also of creating art and sponsoring research and education,” says Cohen. “It’s kind of a nice circle.”

A symbolic non-fungible visualization of the CTLA-4 blockade patent disclosures of Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison

A work of art including patent disclosures for the work of Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison is part of an NFT sold by the University of California at Berkeley.Credit: UC Berkeley

But others argue that selling NFT is wasteful, as blockchains rely on power-hungry computing to prevent data corruption. Digital currency operator Ethereum, for example, currently consumes roughly the same power consumption as all of Zimbabwe.

This makes NFTs “really a criminal amount of waste for something that does nothing other than act as a database for receipts for ugly cats,” says Weaver. Auctioning the physical papers would make more sense, he says.

Genome Gold Rush

The Berkeley team is also creating a digital artwork from documents relating to Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of CRISPR gene editing, for a future NFT auction. This is slowed down by the need to ensure that his patent – which is still active – is not infringed by s.

Meanwhile, on June 10, Church and Nebula Genomics went on sale. 20 DTV, each featuring a piece of art based on Church’s likeness and a special limited-edition discount on Nebula’s whole genome sequencing service. The money raised will be divided between an unnamed charity, Church, the blockchain company Oasis Labs, Nebula Genomics and the AkoinNFT sales platform.

The offer is a surprising setback from what was initially announced: the group announced that it would sell an NFT including Church’s genome at an auction on June 10. But that plan was put on hold at the last minute, said Nebula Genomics Nature, “because the NFT and crypto markets have gone down over the past week.”

“Our plan is to continue to wait for market conditions to improve before launching the full auction,” said Nebula co-founder Kamal Obbad. We don’t know when that might be.

The idea of ​​selling a Church genome NFT had caused both excitement and bewilderment online. Like a scientist joked on twitter, given that Church’s genome has long been available for free online: “By a strange coincidence, I’m also selling the George Church genome!” No auction or NFT or whatever, ”they joked, offering to send the link in exchange for $ 5.

George Church portrait

Harvard geneticist George Church is considering auctioning off an NFT for his genome.Credit: Gretchen Ertl / The New York Times / Redux / eyevine

Ethical issues

But for Church’s company, this NFT has a more serious purpose: a trial. Nebula Genomics is already using blockchain technology to allow 15,000 people whose entire genomes it has sequenced to grant temporary access to their data to specific users (such as pharmaceutical companies looking for links between genes and diseases) . NFTs could in the future provide a convenient system for customers to earn money from these exchanges, Obbad explains.

A few other companies are similarly experimenting with ways for customers to sell genomic data on blockchain marketplaces. The idea is to give users more control over their data and channel the benefits directly to individuals, thereby encouraging more people to have their genomes sequenced.

But some note that these goals can be achieved without NFT. The plan to auction an NFT for Church’s genome “is a publicity stunt,” says Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist at Columbia University in New York and chief scientist of MyHeritage, a genome sequencing and genealogy company based. in Or Yehuda, Israel.

Selling personal genomes raises ethical issues, says bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky of the University of Montreal in Canada, for example whether a person really owns their genome, given that much of it is shared with family members. She also notes that there are already debates on whether people should be allowed to earn money from their biological resources, for example through sperm donation. The problem of selling data, she says, “will be the next generation of these problems.”

There are a lot of “open questions,” agrees Obbad, who says the proposal to sell an NFT with Church’s genome had been “a good topic of conversation.”

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