Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Power of the Genome: Weighing Opportunities, Dangers and Responsibility

Angus Convention 2015


Richard Resnick
CEO of GenomeQuest

One can not impede scientific progress.
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 
Resnick gave a series of examples of how genomics is changing society.

Resnick put a nice spin on the typical sequencing cost figure. He overlays Illumina's ($ILMN) stock price on top of the figure.

He went on to explain that the only real differences between humans, cattle, corn, and other species is the proteins they make. The amino acids, the building block of proteins, are actually the same between species.

Resnick used cystic fibrosis as an example of a disease in which genetics has been very important. One DNA variant that causes the disease is called ΔF508. When a person has this variant, the gene produces the protein, but a check and balance in the cell recognizes the protein as not correct and destroys it. A different variant, G551D, is not so severe that the protein is destroyed, but the protein does not function properly. A drug called Kalydeco alters the mis-shaped protein coded by the G551D variant and allows it to function again.

Cancer is a disease of the genome. What we need is molecular names for these cancers. This will allow more individualized treatments of what is biologically wrong.

With these advances in medicine, humans will be living longer and there will be more demand for food. We need to keep in mind, when we digest food, we take the proteins and shred them back up into amino acids.

Genomic prediction allows you to the predict the future with accuracy. This, of course, is not genetic modification in the GMO sense. But, other agricultural species cannot benefit the same from genomic prediction as sexually reproducing organisms.

Bananas don't have sex. The trees are clones of other trees. But, if a disease comes along, you can't breed for the disease resistance in bananas. Oranges face similar disease issues. Most corn has a gene transfected from bacteria that produces a toxin that stops bugs from eating the plant. Most soybeans are now Roundup Ready, meaning we can spray the plant with pesticides, the crop lives and the weeds die. So, we just need to wash the soybeans, and there are no problems with eating these soybeans.

There is actually a gene for apple browning. Scientist took this gene and duplicated it multiple times in the apple genome. When the apple cells see too much of the protein coded by this browning gene, the cells shut down all copies of this gene. Thus, no browning protein, so the apple does not brown!
Aquabounty salmon, is a modified salmon that grows to its mature size in 18 months.

By Kevin586  via Wikimedia Commons
For writers, they moved from pen and paper, to type writers, to word processors, and now to computers with Google and all the other Internet tools. Today in genomics we have the "word processor" figured out. What will happen when we move past the "word processor" of genomics and get to the "Google" stage of genomics?

Many people (20%) find cilantro disgusting, it tastes like soap to them. This disgust is caused by genetics. If you go to a high-end restaurant, wouldn't the chef want to know that you hate cilantro? In fact, a certain food company is doing lots of sequencing in Europe to figure out what foods people like or is more nutritional for them.

The baby's entire genome is circulating in the mother's blood. This means we can test the baby's DNA from the mother's blood. What is the line between aborting a baby for the presence of a horrible disability and aborting a baby for the lack of a preferred trait?

There is a patent for DNA testing to identify sperm donors. "Is this a problem? Certainly not in bovines, but what about humans?" Resnick asked. Previously when we did gene modification, we used a sledge hammer, now with CRISPR technology we can use a precise scalpel. Dehorning is a bad public perception issue, takes time and labor, and is an animal welfare issue. Recombinetics has technology to take an animal with the variant that causes horn growth and to replace it with the gene that causes the animal to be polled.

In the United States, we don't do gene editing in humans due to ethical concerns. But, scientists in China have already worked on altering nonviable human embryos.

"Have I scared you a little bit? Hopefully." Resnick stated. But, he hopes that you now understand the difference between DNA testing (like we do for genomic-enhanced EPDS) and genetic modification, that you understand the impacts genetic modification can have, and that you can intelligently discuss these topics with the rest of society.

For more information on Resnick's talk see Troy Smith's article at AngusConvention.com and Resnick's presentation slides.


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