Although there have been significant advances in the medical sciences in recent years, doctors are still confounded by many diseases and researchers are using whole genome sequencing to get to the bottom of the problem. Whole genome sequencing is a process in genomics that determines the DNA sequence of an entire genome.
Whole genome sequencing is a brute-force approach to problem solving when there is a genetic basis at the core of a disease. Several laboratories now provide services to sequence, analyze, and interpret entire genomes.
In 2010, whole genome sequencing was used to save a young boy whose intestines had multiple mysterious abscesses. The child had several colon operations with no relief. Finally, a whole genome sequence revealed a defect in a pathway that controls apoptosis (programmed cell death).
A bone marrow transplant was used to overcome this genetic disorder, leading to a cure for the boy. He was the first person to be successfully diagnosed using whole genome sequencing.
The first genomes to be sequenced, such as those belonging to viruses, bacteria, and yeast, were smaller in terms of the number of nucleotides than the genomes of multicellular organisms.
The genomes of other model organisms, such as the mouse (Mus musculus), the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), and the nematode (Caenorhabditis elegans) are now known. A great deal of basic research is performed in model organisms because the information can be applied to other organisms.
A model organism is a species that is studied as a model to understand the biological processes in other species that can be represented by the model organism.
For example, fruit flies are able to metabolize alcohol like humans, so the genes affecting sensitivity to alcohol have been studied in fruit flies in an effort to understand the variation in sensitivity to alcohol in humans. Having entire genomes sequenced helps with the research efforts in these model organisms.
The first human genome sequence was published in 2003. The number of whole genomes that have been sequenced steadily increases and now includes hundreds of species and thousands of individual human genomes.
Image: The Field Museum