DNA Day experts answer your questions about genetics research

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Will genetics research allow us to become immune to all diseases?

The answer is decidedly NO. Diseases caused by other organisms (e.g. microbes) are continually evolving as are we. Even if we could 'help' our immune system to become more efficient via genetic research, we will continually be assaulted by novel pathogens...

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

During your research on genetics, has anything really surprised you or been unexpected?

Yes, after building a "DNA barcode" reference sequence library for fishes, when we tested the identity of fillets from the market I was surprised to see such high levels of market substitution, where species of a lower market value were substituted for species of a higher market value (e.g. food fraud).

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

What do you think is the coolest thing happening with genetics research today?

Well even though I guess I'm supposed to provide answers, I have many questions about DNA myself. But then again, that's what science is all about. In general I think the coolest thing is that genetics research is moving ahead with incredible rapidity. You might have thought that with the sequencing of the human genome, that would be it. But no ...

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

What do you think is the coolest thing happening with genetics research today?

This is difficult because I am interested in so many areas. . . but if i had to pick one area it would be Metagenomics. The study of microbial communities that inhanit our bodies, on our skin, in our lakes etc. Microbes are everywhere. The reason this field has emerged is because it is so cheap to sequence DNA. Historically its been hard to study bacteria and microbes because we could not grow them in the lab. With DNA sequencing technology being so cheap, we can now just sequence them.

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

If we're still finding our way on when or how to apply genetic technology, what is to stop researchers from simply experimenting as they see fit (here or in other countries)? What global laws and safeguards can be put in place to force ethical decisions?

There are numerous ethical and legal guidelines that aim to prevent researchers from "experimenting as they see fit". This is not restricted to research on genetic technology, but applies to any research endeavour. I suspect the folks who design, build and use particle collision machines can't just "experiment as they see fit", for example. The same goes for genetics. It's unclear how you "force ethical decisions" - this is the realm of politics, not science. It's unclear what global laws and safeguards can be taken, but this is clearly a hot topic in our field and is gaining more and more attention (e.g. http://tinyurl.com/m3zptev)

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

If you got the chance to fund one area of genetic research that is super important right now what would it be?

Microbial Ecology. There are more microbes in a handful of soil than there are humans on all of earth. They run all of the earth's processes, yet we haven't even discovered or named 1% of them!

- Answer provided by Dr. Monique Haakensen

Type one diabetes is managed effectively with synthetic insulin produced by bacteria, but why do scientists still continue research on this?

Management with synthetic insulin is great, but understanding the underlying cause might warrant other interventions. Like perhaps a cure? Also I think there is varying severities of this disease so it would be good to determine what genetic determinants may be involved. Determining the hereditary factors may also lead to intervention and a cure so the disease is removed from the population.

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

Can you explain briefly how specific genes get silenced by researchers?

There are multiple ways to do this, but a common one is to fabricate a small piece of RNA in the shape of a hairpin that matches a bit of a gene's unique DNA sequence, then introduce that hairpin RNA (called siRNA) into cells. Animals (including worms and flies) see this hairpin and assume it's a double-stranded RNA virus. Cell defence mechanisms against RNA viruses kick in and supress the gene you designed the siRNA against. We're basically co-opting a natural gene suppression system with artificial RNA. For getting into the cells, for some worms you just need to put it in their food. For most other organisms, you need to apply an electric current across the cells to open them up briefly for RNA uptake.

- Answer provided by Dr. Paul Gordon

For food products and/or processing applications what genetic traits (genes) are scientists looking for? Are there any big "races" go on at present?

Lots of things - depends upon the crop/product in question. Things like drought and pest resistance are commonly sought traits in plants. Disease resistance and rapid growth are sought in aquaculture products. I don't know about any particular "races" however... but I'm sure there are hot topics in each commodity under investigation.

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

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