What is Genomics?

Education Services / L’équipe des services d’éducation
12 September 2012

What is Genomics?

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What is genomics?

Genomics is the study of genomes. This involves the sequencing of the complete genetic code (DNA) of living organisms. It is a science that examines how the whole genome interacts with the environment. Genomics involves sequencing vast amounts of DNA and as a result produces huge amounts of data that must be stored, organized and accessed. The pursuit of genomics has fueled growth of the technical field of bioinformatics, which is the application of computer science and technology to the management of biological information.

What were the first genomics projects?

The first genomes to be successfully sequenced were viruses because they have shorter genetic codes. The viral genome of Bacteriophage fX174, which has only 5,368 base pairs, was the first organism to be sequenced.  The development of Sanger Sequencing in 1977 was instrumental to the development of genomics, allowing sequencing to be done much faster. The Sanger method quickly became a standard method for genome sequencing.

The sequencing of the first eukaryotic genome, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or yeast, was started by a European group of researchers in 1989. It has a sequence that was about 60 times longer than any sequence attempted before. S. cerevisae is the yeast that has been employed in baking, wine making and brewing since antiquity. For scientists, it also represents a “model organism” for research because of its ability to reproduce quickly, its genetic structure and its established economic value. By 1997, thirteen genomes of free-living organisms were sequenced, including E. coli, yeast and eleven other microbes.

 What was the Human Genome Project?

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was an international research effort started in 1990 to sequence the entire DNA in the human body - the 3 billion base pairs genome of Homo sapiens! The goal of the project was to help scientists understand the genetic factors that impact on human disease, in order to develop new methods of diagnosing and treating or preventing disease. The data produced from the HGP is available on the internet to help speed up global research and medical discoveries. Completed in April 2003, the HGP has revolutionized innovations in biotechnology and initiated spin off “omics” projects, such as proteomics (the sequencing of proteins within a genome) and metabolomics (the sequencing of small molecule metabolites).

What has been the impact of the HGP?

Our world has truly changed as result of the HGP and widespread access to the human genome. Thanks to the Human Genome Project:

  • Inherited diseases can now be detected in a few days, as opposed to years, and at a greatly reduced cost.
  • Over 1800 disease genes have been detected.
  • More than 2,000 genetic tests are available to assess the risk of developing a genetic disease or to help diagnose diseases.
  • Hundreds of new biotechnology-based products are on the market or in clinical trials.
  • A human HapMap has been published. This is a catalogue of genetic variation (Haplotypes) in the human genome. This has helped speed up the identification of genes involved in common human diseases and conditions, like breast cancer and obesity.
  • The field of bioethics has grown out of a need to address ethical issues surrounding the information found in a genome.
  • In medicine, the field of pharmacogenomics has developed. For example, this genomics-based science looks at how individuals will respond to specific drugs, allowing doctors to prescribe the best drug to combat cancer or AIDS.

Other Applications of Genomics

Aside from the human health applications of genomics, genomics research in other areas exploded as a direct result of the Human Genome Project experience.

In agriculture, sequencing the genomes of the major economic food crops and livestock has been an ongoing project. Starting with the humble mustard weed Arabidopsis thaliana in 2000, the growth and application of plant genomics has been important in the development of pest-resistant, herbicide tolerant, frost and drought tolerant, and nutrient-enhanced crops. Although it has taken about 20 years, most of the genomes for important agronomic crops and domestic livestock in the world have been sequenced.

Shortly after the human genome completion, the genomes for rice, the honey bee, chicken and cow were completed. By 2009, draft genomes for soybeans and horse, pig, sorghum and corn were completed. In 2010, wheat, golden delicious apples, oil seed crops and biodiesel crops were added the list. In 2011, canola, potato, Cannabis sativa (marijuana & hemp), more fruit trees and model plants had their genomes sequenced. So far, in 2012, we can add cotton, the tomato and banana to the expanding list of agriculturally significant genomes that have been sequenced.

Organisms of economic importance in industrial biotechnology applications have shown a similar sequencing expansion. Many protists, such as amoebas and parasites, moulds and fungus and algae have been sequenced. Human and animal pathogens have been of great interest in sequencing projects because of the hope of finding methods for diagnosing and treating disease. Other organisms being sequenced are of industrial importance because of the products they can produce, like oil from algae and antibiotics from moulds and fungus.

What is the Future of Genomics?

Genomics will continue to support health and medical applications and innovations in industry, agriculture and the environment. Currently an atlas of cancer genomes is being produced. It is anticipated that the cost of genome sequencing will be reduced to under $1000 and there will be an increased use of individual genomes for preventative and personalized medicine. In agriculture, genomics will help us develop new varieties of food crops with enhanced nutrient content, such as beans. The environment will benefit from genomics by identifying disease processes in forest crops and by employing the traits of living organisms to remediate (clean up) polluted environments. Industrial biotechnology will continue to use genomics (and proteomics) to create many useful products, such as biofuels, antibodies, vaccines, biodegradable plastics and cosmetics.

Education Services / L’équipe des services d’éducation

This content is provided through Let's Talk Science's Education Services team.

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