The Mighty Genome – Genomics & You

Posted on February 16, 2012 by

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By Thom Friend

Genetics are everything. Our gender, our hair, our health, even our personality are determined by genetics. Mapping out the human genome was a daunting task to say the least, but it has been done. Now that we know exactly what makes us who and what we are, boundless numbers of medical discoveries are within our grasp.

So exactly what is a genome? It is a map of all of the biological information that is needed to build and maintain an organism.  According to Richard Resnick, head of GenomeQuest, a map of biological information is quite useful and the genome has significant uses in discovering and treating illnesses, such as cancer. It can also be used in increasing the tolerance of Genetically Modified crops, and even has some significant social uses

“Wake up . . .to the Genomic Revolution that’s happening all around you” Said Reznick Richard Reznick at a TEDxBoston Conference devoted to Ideas Worth Spreding.

 

In the early 1990’s the quest to sequence the human genome was underway. The task was colossal, and it wasn’t until 2003, fifteen years later, that it was finally complete. However, in the last few years, the process of sequencing a genome has become drastically easier and less expensive.

 

Within the double helix, there are four bases: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).  In each human genome there are three billion bases and it costs scientists about a dollar to sequence each base. Since its initial sequencing in 2003, the price of this process has fallen 100 million times and Reznick predicts that in three years it will only cost $100 to sequence each genome

 

With the process becoming so affordable, we begin to see how it can be used on a global scale. Reznick speaks about a woman who battled cancer multiple times throughout her life and eventually died. The woman’s genome was sequenced after she died and it was discovered that she had a deletion in a specific gene. if a person has  this deletion, their 90 percent likely to get cancer in their life according to Reznick. , If everyone got their genome sequenced, people with this gene deletion can get frequently screened for cancer, and have the ability to catch the diagnosis earlier.

 

Another instance of how the genome would change medical uses comes from a story of a young boy. This young boy had a strange condition that caused feces to spill into his gut every time he ate food which was causing the child intense pain, and as a result he had to undergo numerous surgeries; None of which  solved the problem. However, after his genome was sequenced, a mutation was found that led doctors to perform a bone marrow transplant. After a lengthy recovery, the boy can finally eat again. These are just two of the possibly limitless number of illnesses that gene sequencing can help doctors discover treatments for.

 

Aside from the medical aspects of sequencing, genomics is also now prominent in the agricultural industry. With an ever-increasing world population, it is essential to grow as much food as possible and genetically modified grains and vegetables, despite being at the forefront of much controversy, are one of the ways to meet the demand. The gene sequencing of vegetables allows scientists to develop crops that are highly tolerant of drought, flood,  pests and pesticides.

 

The social uses of the genome could also prove to be quite marketable. Resnick points out how genome databases could bring distant family members together in an instant. You could potentially log-on to a genome database and discover family members across the globe. Genomics also brings about issues of privacy. If everyone has his or her genes sequenced, how private is this information? Reznick cites an experience he has already had with his life insurance company in which they asked if he has had a genetic test. Could insurance companies gain access to your genome that reveals how potentially healthy or unhealthy you are?

Without a doubt this new technology has changed the world, and will continue to do so. The rate at which genome research is advancing can be seen as incredible, and maybe even a little alarming. Whether the technology is used effectively, and for the right reasons remains to be seen. To hear a powerful lecture on the genome by Richard Reznick, himself, check out his TEDTalks session online at the official TED website, www.ted.com.

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