From cat memes and music tracks to all kinds of digital art, the weird and often weird market for non-fungible tokens (NFT) is booming. Now, science is keeping up with the trend of these digital document property receipts for online purchases and sales.
On June 8, the University of California at Berkeley auctioned an NFT based on documents related to the work of Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher James Allison, at a price of more than $50,000. On June 17, the U.S. Space Force, a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, began selling a series of NFTs containing satellite and space images in augmented reality.
And, from June 23 to 30, Tim Berners Lee, the computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web, will auction NFTs with the original web browser source code and silent videos of the code being written.
At the same time, biology pioneer George Church and Nebula Genomics, a company he co-founded in San Francisco, California, announced their intention to sell the NFT of Church’s genome. Church is a geneticist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He helped launch the Human Genome Project. He is known for his controversial proposals, including resurrecting mammoths and creating DNA-based dating apps. The
NFT boom is celebrated online for improving digital art, and at the same time, it is ridiculed as meaningless and has a huge carbon footprint because of the huge computing power required to maintain it.
The debate about NFTs in science is equally fierce. Some say they provide an incentive to showcase science to the public; a new way of fundraising; and even when pharmaceutical companies buy access to their genome data, a way for people to get royalties. Others say that NFTs, which operate in a similar way to digital cryptocurrencies, just inject unnecessary energy into a market bubble that is sure to burst.
Nicholas Weaver, who studies cryptocurrency at Berkeley International Institute of Computer Science, said, “The more you look at it, the more you realize how crazy it is.”
NFT uses blocks that are the basis of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin Chain technology to prove ownership of the document. NFTs are “minted” in the same way as cryptocurrencies, using one of many online platforms to add them to a tamper-proof blockchain ledger, usually at a cost of tens or hundreds of dollars, and then sold online. People can buy and trade these certificates in the same way as physical collections, such as baseball cards. The art or data can be viewed online for free and downloaded in its original form; NFT buyers only have a verifiable property receipt. The NFT concept was born in the early 2010s, but exploded this year: For example, in March, the NFT of a digital artwork by an American artist nicknamed Beeple was sold for nearly $70 million. The NFT market reached a 30-day sales record of $325 billion in early May. In June, it cooled significantly, but you still see more than $10 million in weekly sales. Michael Alvarez Cohen, Director of Innovation Ecosystem Development, Intellectual Property Office, University of California, Berkeley, decided to try using NFT to raise funds for the university. A group of designers scanned legal documents archived by the university, as well as handwritten notes and faxes related to Alison’s valuable discoveries. This artwork named Pillar 4 is available for everyone to view online, and the team created an NFT to obtain ownership of the artwork.
After a short bidding war, NFT was sold on June 8 for 22 Ethereum (approximately US$54,000). The buyers are a group of Berkeley alumni named FiatLux DAO, founded by the same blockchain expert a few days ago, and they first provided Berkeley with advice on how to create an NFT. The money will be allocated to the NFT Auction Site Foundation, Berkeley Research Fund and carbon offsets.
“This is an interesting combination of showing the world these historical documents, creating art, and sponsoring research and education,” Cohen said. “This is a beautiful circle.”
But others replied that selling NFTs is a waste because the blockchain relies on power-consuming calculations to prevent data corruption. For example, the current energy usage of the digital currency operator Ethereum is roughly the same as that of the entire territory of Zimbabwe.
This makes NFT “really a waste of crime numbers for something that has no value other than a database that serves as an ugly cat receipt,” Weaver said. He said that auctioning paper documents would make more sense.
Genome Gold Rush- The Berkeley team is also using files related to Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna (one of the pioneers of CRISPR gene editing) to create digital art for future NFT auctions. This was hindered by the need to ensure that his still valid patent was not infringed by art.
At the same time, on June 10, Church and Nebula Genomics released 20 NFTs, each with an artwork based on Church’s portrait, and a special limited edition discount for Nebula’s whole-genome sequencing service. The funds raised will be distributed to an unnamed charity, Church, blockchain company Oasis Labs, Nebula Genomics and sales platform AkoinNFT.
Compared with the originally announced proposal, the proposal is a surprising step backwards: the organization stated that it will sell the NFT containing Church’s genome at an auction on June 10. But the plan was shelved at the last minute, Nebula Genomics told Nature, “because the NFT and cryptocurrency markets have declined in the past week.”
“Our plan is to wait for market conditions to improve before launching the entire auction,” said Nebula co-founder Kamal Obbad. It is unclear when it will be possible.
The idea of selling the NFT of Church’s genome caused excitement and confusion online. As a scientist on Twitter joked, since Church’s genome