genome research is already contributing to changes at different levels for example what we eat: breeders select animals based on genetic information for better milk or meat production, it becomes possible to farm different types of fish; understanding th genomes of microorganisms leads to industrial applications but also makes more rapid our ability to combat infections. In the health systsems applications start to come out but it’s taking time. There are safer genetic tests for pregant women, tests for a small number of drugs that cause harm to people who carry certain DNA changes and progressively tests that allow to chose the most efficient drug for treating a certain type of cancer. The number of applications that will affect us is bound to increase substantially in the near future.
Did you know that genome research is really important in stopping ‘flu pandemics?
We can now sequence genomes so quickly (and pretty cheaply) that within a couple of days of someone getting really sick with a new strain of virus we can know exactly what its genome looks like, and learn how it differs from the normal winter viruses. In fact, we can even use the genome sequences of viruses to track its movements from person to person and then work out who is most at risk from catching it, and how best to design a vaccine against it. This is our best chance to stop another pandemic like the one in 1918 that killed 50 to 100 million people! Pretty scary, huh?
In the (not too distant – possibly 20 or so years from now) future each of us will have their genome sequenced. It actually possible to do this now for about £2000 and the costs are rapidly decreasing. The hard part (and what many scientists are working on right now) is understanding what and how much it can tell us. Based on our genome sequence your doctors will be able to give you advice regarding your lifestyle: those that have a greater risk of heart disease would be advised to eat certain types of food; those at risk of getting certain diseases could go for yearly check ups to make sure the disease is detected early. When people who are at school now and are starting to have children of their own, knowing about your genome and what it can tell you will be a very important part of their lives.
Genome research is about understanding all of the DNA contained in your cells. Humans have natural differences in their genetic codes, these are the changes that make us different to one another (the only exception to this is identical twins, who share an identical genome). My research is about cancer genomes. Cancers arise when your genome acquires mutations that cause cells to start behaving and growing abnormally. Mapping the genome of a cancer tells us which mutations caused the cancer. This is very important to know, as we can then design drugs that kill the cancer and it can tell us which drug might work best. In future all cancer patients may have their cancer genomes sequenced and this will help us to find cures and better treatments for cancer. I am sequencing the Tasmanian devil cancer genome – although Tasmanian devils are distantly related to humans, their cancer genome is in some ways surprisingly similar.