Can genomics keep its promise?

In 2005, scientists announced that they’d sequenced the DNA of a chimp called Clint and that it was practically the same as that of a man called Clint, or any other human being.

As far as DNA is concerned, our two species are 96% identical, and the number of genetic differences between chimps and us is ten times smaller than that between mice and rats.

The genomes of any two persons (apart from identical twins) vary by 0.1%. However, given that there are 3 billion DNA molecules (or “base-pairs”) in the genome, that represents around 6 million differences, contributing to the great variety of height, skin colour, morphology and other traits, while the 4% human-chimp gap represents 40 million base-pair differences.

When the human genome was first sequenced, there was talk of a flood of revolutionary medicines exploiting the new data. That hasn’t happened because the science is far more complicated than the optimistic forecasts suggested.

However, there has been considerable progress, and genetic medicine is one of the themes of the HUGO-OECD McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health symposium on genomics and the bioeconomy being held today, May 17th, in Montpellier, France.

One of the most innovative aspects on the agenda is the potential for genomic medicine in the developing world, with reports from institutions that have initiated large-scale genotyping initiatives to improve the health of their populations as well as to promote a knowledge-based economy.

The technology isn’t the only thing that’s changing. Dr Samir K Brahmachari, Secretary to the Government of India, calls for an open-source approach to drug development, claiming that the Indian-led Open Source Drug Discovery project could do for health care what the Web and Linux did for IT.

Apart from human health, the symposium will also be looking at the possibility of harnessing living processes for bioenergy, environmental remediation, and food production.

Useful links

Work on biotechnology at the OECD

The Bioeconomy to 2030 (OECD publication, 2009)