The introduction of DNA sequencing and whole genome sequencing projects, particularly the Human Genome Project, has expanded the applicability of DNA sequence information. Genomics is now being used in a wide variety of fields, such as metagenomics, pharmacogenomics, and mitochondrial genomics.
The most commonly known among applications of genomics is to understand and find cures for diseases.
Predicting Disease Risk At The Individual Level
Predicting the risk of disease involves screening and identifying currently healthy individuals by genome analysis at the individual level. Intervention with lifestyle changes and drugs can be recommended before disease onset.
However, this approach is most applicable when the problem arises from a single gene mutation. Such defects only account for about 5 percent of diseases found in developed countries.
Most of the common diseases, such as heart disease, are multifactorial or polygenic, which refers to a phenotypic characteristic that is determined by two or more genes, and also environmental factors such as diet. In April 2010, scientists at Stanford University published the genome analysis of a healthy individual (Stephen Quake, a scientist at Stanford University, who had his genome sequenced); the analysis predicted his propensity to acquire various diseases.
A risk assessment was done to analyze Quake’s percentage of risk for 55 different medical conditions. A rare genetic mutation was found that showed him to be at risk for sudden heart attack. He was also predicted to have a 23 percent risk of developing prostate cancer and a 1.4 percent risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The scientists used databases and several publications to analyze the genomic data. Even though genomic sequencing is becoming more affordable and analytical tools are becoming more reliable, ethical issues surrounding genomic analysis at a population level remain to be addressed.
For example, could such data be legitimately used to charge more or less for insurance or to affect credit ratings?
The method is particularly suited to diseases that may be affected by one or many genetic changes throughout the genome. It is very difficult to identify the genes involved in such a disease using family history information.
The GWAS method relies on a genetic database that has been in development since 2002 called the International HapMap Project. The HapMap Project sequenced the genomes of several hundred individuals from around the world and identified groups of SNPs.
The groups include SNPs that are located near to each other on chromosomes so they tend to stay together through recombination. The fact that the group stays together means that identifying one marker SNP is all that is needed to identify all the SNPs in the group.
There are several million SNPs identified, but identifying them in other individuals who have not had their complete genome sequenced is much easier because only the marker SNPs need to be identified.
In a common design for a GWAS, two groups of individuals are chosen; one group has the disease, and the other group does not. The individuals in each group are matched in other characteristics to reduce the effect of confounding variables causing differences between the two groups.
For example, the genotypes may differ because the two groups are mostly taken from different parts of the world. Once the individuals are chosen, and typically their numbers are a thousand or more for the study to work, samples of their DNA are obtained.
The DNA is analyzed using automated systems to identify large differences in the percentage of particular SNPs between the two groups. Often the study examines a million or more SNPs in the DNA.
The results of GWAS can be used in two ways: the genetic differences may be used as markers for susceptibility to the disease in undiagnosed individuals, and the particular genes identified can be targets for research into the molecular pathway of the disease and potential therapies.
An offshoot of the discovery of gene associations with disease has been the formation of companies that provide so-called “personal genomics” that will identify risk levels for various diseases based on an individual’s SNP complement. The science behind these services is controversial.
Because GWAS looks for associations between genes and disease, these studies provide data for other research into causes, rather than answering specific questions themselves. An association between a gene difference and a disease does not necessarily mean there is a cause-and-effect relationship.
However, some studies have provided useful information about the genetic causes of diseases.
For example, three different studies in 2005 identified a gene for a protein involved in regulating inflammation in the body that is associated with a disease-causing blindness called age-related macular degeneration. This opened up new possibilities for research into the cause of this disease.
A large number of genes have been identified to be associated with Crohn’s disease using GWAS, and some of these have suggested new hypothetical mechanisms for the cause of the disease.
Applications Of Genomics: Pharmacogenomics
Pharmacogenomics involves evaluating the effectiveness and safety of drugs on the basis of information from an individual’s genomic sequence. Personal genome sequence information can be used to prescribe medications that will be most effective and least toxic on the basis of the individual patient’s genotype.
Studying changes in gene expression could provide information about the gene transcription profile in the presence of the drug, which can be used as an early indicator of the potential for toxic effects. For example, genes involved in cellular growth and controlled cell death, when disturbed, could lead to the growth of cancerous cells.
Genome-wide studies can also help to find new genes involved in drug toxicity. The gene signatures may not be completely accurate, but can be tested further before pathologic symptoms arise.
Metagenomics involves isolating DNA from multiple species within an environmental niche. The DNA is cut up and sequenced, allowing entire genome sequences of multiple species to be reconstructed from the sequences of overlapping pieces.
Traditionally, microbiology has been taught with the view that microorganisms are best studied under pure culture conditions, which involves isolating a single type of cell and culturing it in the laboratory.
Because microorganisms can go through several generations in a matter of hours, their gene expression profiles adapt to the new laboratory environment very quickly. On the other hand, many species resist being cultured in isolation.
Most microorganisms do not live as isolated entities, but in microbial communities known as biofilms. For all of these reasons, pure culture is not always the best way to study microorganisms.
Metagenomics is the study of the collective genomes of multiple species that grow and interact in an environmental niche.
Metagenomics can be used to identify new species more rapidly and to analyze the effect of pollutants on the environment. Metagenomics techniques can now also be applied to communities of higher eukaryotes, such as fish.
Applications Of Genomics: Creation of New Biofuels
Knowledge of the genomics of microorganisms is being used to find better ways to harness biofuels from algae and cyanobacteria. The primary sources of fuel today are coal, oil, wood, and other plant products such as ethanol.
Although plants are renewable resources, there is still a need to find more alternative renewable sources of energy to meet our population’s energy demands. The microbial world is one of the largest resources for genes that encode new enzymes and produce new organic compounds, and it remains largely untapped.
This vast genetic resource holds the potential to provide new sources of biofuels.
Mitochondria are intracellular organelles that contain their own DNA. Mitochondrial DNA mutates at a rapid rate and is often used to study evolutionary relationships.
Another feature that makes studying the mitochondrial genome interesting is that in most multicellular organisms, the mitochondrial DNA is passed on from the mother during the process of fertilization. For this reason, mitochondrial genomics is often used to trace genealogy.
Genomics in Forensic Analysis
Bacillus anthracis is the organism that causes anthrax. (credit: modification of work by CDC; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
Information and clues obtained from DNA samples found at crime scenes have been used as evidence in court cases, and genetic markers have been used in forensic analysis. Genomic analysis has also become useful in this field.
In 2001, the first use of genomics in forensics was published. It was a collaborative effort between academic research institutions and the FBI to solve the mysterious cases of anthrax that was transported by the US Postal Service.
Anthrax bacteria were made into an infectious powder and mailed to news media and two U.S. Senators. The powder infected the administrative staff and postal workers who opened or handled the letters. Five people died, and 17 were sickened from the bacteria.
Using microbial genomics, researchers determined that a specific strain of anthrax was used in all the mailings; eventually, the source was traced to a scientist at a national biodefense laboratory in Maryland.
Genomics in Agriculture
Genomics can reduce the trials and failures involved in scientific research to a certain extent, which could improve the quality and quantity of crop yields in agriculture. Linking traits to genes or gene signatures helps to improve crop breeding to generate hybrids with the most desirable qualities.
Scientists use genomic data to identify desirable traits, and then transfer those traits to a different organism to create a new genetically modified organism, as described in the previous module. Scientists are discovering how genomics can improve the quality and quantity of agricultural production.
For example, scientists could use desirable traits to create a useful product or enhance an existing product, such as making a drought-sensitive crop more tolerant of the dry season.
First published on Open Stax cnx.org. Republished under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. Top Image: Meta3C network of a population of bacteria isolated from a water environment. Each color corresponds to a cluster of DNA segments, and, by extension, to an individual genome. 2014, Marbouty et al, CC-BY 4.0