Lower costs for genetic analysis enabling new research

Human understanding of genomics is evolving rapidly, as the cost of analyzing DNA falls and the global pool of genetic data grows.

“There’s a big race right now to edit immune cells that are used in immunotherapy, and really edit any cell in the body,” said Dr. Chris Mason, an associate professor and researcher at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

He spoke yesterday at the Biohealth Summit in Madison, put on by BioForward Wisconsin. He says the past decade has seen an explosion of progress in the field of genomics, which deals with the structure and mechanisms of genetic information.

Researchers can now analyze organisms’ entire genomes “at much higher resolution, with far greater depth than we ever could see before,” he said.

That progress is largely due to steeply falling costs for genetic analysis. Mason points out that sequencing the human genome used to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, while now it’s closer to $1,000. And that cost could be driven down further, he says, as San Diego-based Illumina recently announced plans to introduce a $100 test.

“This has got everyone pretty excited, because this is faster than Moore’s Law,” he said, referring to the trend of computer processing power steadily increasing. “It’s really the fastest pace of any technological change that’s ever happened in human history.”

That means the amount of genetic data generated every day is surpassing astronomical numbers, he says.

“Every day that a geneticist wakes up, there is more information on that day than any day prior,” he said. “So actually, every single day in genetics is the best day to be a geneticist.”

This change has enabled many new projects, including a global metagenomic study that’s being undertaken by Mason and other researchers to map genetic and microbial diversity around the world. Metagenomics refers to the study of DNA recovered from the local environment.

He and his colleagues are using this method to track antimicrobial resistance, which can give rise to so-called “superbugs.”

The data can be used to pinpoint hotspots for antimicrobial resistance, providing supplemental information to World Health Organization reports. The data can also be mined to find new candidates for antibiotics.

“So it’s both an effort to map antibiotic resistance and find ways to attack the problem,” he said.

No matter where the studies are conducted, researchers always find some DNA with no known origin. That can mean new viruses, bacteria and even plant matter.

“It’s a very pure, joyful and exuberant discovery effort,” Mason told WisBusiness.com. “Which is something that’s always fun to do in science — to say ‘I found something that no one’s ever seen before.’”

Attendees at the Biohealth Summit had the chance to get their phones swabbed and contribute data to the larger project. They will get personalized reports on the results of those tests in several weeks.

Researchers are also testing the surfaces of other places around Madison, Mason said.

“We’re doing this in cities, on public surfaces across the world,” he said. “The phones are a way to build up what the background looks like, what people carry around with them.”

See more on the study here: http://metasub.org/

–By Alex Moe