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)

GE crops: Insights blog readers say no

The opinion poll on GE crops is now closed. Over 2500 readers voted, and while it’s obviously not a scientifically conducted survey, your comments did cover the main points that come up in any debate on the subject.

But first the results. There is a clear majority for the view that GE crops are “A threat to biodiversity and have too many unknown consequences”, with 1431 votes for this option (54%) versus 1171 (44%) taking the view that these crops represent “A positive innovation, helping to improve food security and quality, while reducing chemical use”.

Very few people were undecided – only 35 participants wanted to find out more before making a decision. On the other hand, the sample is self-selecting, so it’s not surprising that it attracted voters with firm opinions already.

Three-quarters of the comments were in favour of GE crops, with only 6 against. Contributors from companies involved in agroscience were in favour, with the main arguments against coming from Greenpeace. A remarkably high number of comments (around two-thirds) came from India, as did many of the votes in favour of GE crops.   

For a summary of the arguments for and against, see the contributions from Vijay Kumar Shrivastav of Bayer Bioscience and Rachel Dujardin of Greenpeace.

Thanks to everybody who took part in the poll and encouraged other people to participate. A special thanks to those who contributed comments.

We’ll organise other polls around controversial issues such as climate change and intellectual property rights, and we’d be happy to hear your suggestions for other subjects you’d like to see debated here.