Magazine article The Futurist

Beyond the Genome

Magazine article The Futurist

Beyond the Genome

Article excerpt

Sequencing the human genome is just the first step for geneticists.

The race to sequence the human genome has received so much public attention that people forget it's only the first leg of a much longer journey, according to leading geneticists.

The next step is to figure out what all the newly discovered genes actually do, says J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, who announced in June that his company had finished sequencing the human genome. Venter estimates that 60% of those human genes "are of unknown function. We're still in the infancy of this science."

"If determining the gene sequence is a hundred-yard dash, then interpreting it is a cross-country run," says Gerald M. Rubin, head of the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project, which teamed with Celera to sequence and publish the entire fruit fly genome in 1999.

To give an idea of the amount of data geneticists must sift through and analyze, Venter explains that if the fruit fly genome--all the genetic instructions for making a fly--were printed out on paper, it would take up 27,000 pages, "but the human genome is 20 times larger."

Delving Deeper: From Genes To Proteins

To understand the roughly 100,000 genes in the human genome, researchers say they must investigate an even more complicated set of molecules--proteins. Genes are the blueprints for making proteins, and the "sequence" of a gene--its structural pattern--determines the kind of protein it makes. Some proteins become building blocks for structural parts of the cell. Other proteins become molecular "machines" -- enzymes, hormones, antibodies--that carry out the myriad activities necessary to keep the cell and the body working properly.

With an understanding of human proteins (or the proteome), scientists will be able to fight disease on many fronts. For example, scientists at the Center for Proteome Analysis in Odense, Denmark, have isolated a protein, galectin, that may fight diabetes. Diabetes seems to be caused when insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are inadvertently killed by the body's immune system.

The Danish scientists spent years analyzing the proteins present in diabetes-prone and diabetes-resistant cells, and they tentatively concluded that galectin protects diabetes-prone cells from being attacked by the immune system. Preliminary animal tests, in which the galectin gene has been inserted into diabetes-prone cells, seem to confirm the hypothesis.

Effective cancer drugs may also arise from a deeper understanding of genes and proteins, says Ken Carter, president of Therapeutic Genomics, one of the many biotech companies working to devise new drugs based on genetic knowledge. Soon, scientists will be able to quickly and accurately compare cancer tissue with normal tissue to see which genes are "switched on" and making proteins (expressed) and which genes are not, he says.

"If you found a gene that was highly expressed in prostate cancer cells but not other tissues, you could deduce that gene was involved in prostate cancer," according to Carter. "We would try to develop in the lab a way to block the expression of that gene." One possibility would be a "small molecule" drug that would attach to and inactivate that gene's protein.

Finally, drugs themselves will likely become safer and more effective because they will be tailored to an individual's genetic ability to process medicines, predicts Robert Waterston, director of the Human Genome Project sequencing center at Washington University in St. …

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