Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Genomes and Bioinformatics at Y10

Today we have been using a method called BLAST searching. Very simply, we are accessing all of the genes and genomes whose sequences have been deposited in the "Public Domain". As young Life Scientists, this information will feature increasingly in your lives. As future professional scientists you will possibly contribute to our understanding of the significance of this information, in ways that we are unable to appreciate in 2014.

When I first helped sequence the gene encoding the restriction and modification enzyme from the lowly bacteriophage P1 in 1985, I had no idea that 30 years later, Mark Szczelkun at Bristol would use a new single molecule technique with this enzyme, to establish important new rules concerning the trafficking of molecules along the DNA double helix. Obtaining the sequences of genes and genomes was then a time-consuming labour of love. Recently, one of my own PhD students has recently obtained the sequences of 6 bacterial genomes using a University service in a matter of weeks: obtaining the sequence of two genes took 6 of us over one year! We are hoping to find a clue to the origins of a new genetic damage phenomenon which is linked to some cancers: chromothripsis. When we have analysed the data, you will be the first to know!

Returning to genomics and bioinformatics; I explained that the sequences of the genomes of man, mouse and pig were very similar (but each of their brains are quite different!). Interestingly, if Charles Darwin had used BLAST searching, I wonder if he would have developed his unifying theory of evolution. I find it easier to tell a chinchilla from a pig by looking at them, than I would by searching the data base. It is  much harder
to spot the difference pair of genes from mouse and pig and man than you might think. It seems that small differences in individual genes combine to determine the appearance, or "phenotype" of the organism (and indeed each cell). In higher organism it is a combination of the genome and our neural networks, that confers our evolutionary advantage.

The freedom to access to this phenomenal resource of biological data is, in my view, one of the greatest achievements of Science in this century. The challenges that lie ahead to interpret these sets of data will form a major part of your lives in Science over the next 50 years. I will leave you by asking you to think about evolution in terms of the complexity of the human genome and the success of the relatively simple genomes that are required to make viruses. Is the virus the most highly evolved? I hope you find time to enjoy searching through the NCBI portal.

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