My Mind Has Been Blown By Genome Sequencing

When I was 12 years old I did my first Punnett square and decided that genetics was absolutely, most definitely the coolest thing ever.

When I was 13 years old they started the Human Genome Project. The task of sequencing all three billion base pairs in a person’s genome was the most enormous project I could imagine. And I didn’t even understand you had to cover the whole thing more than once to do it right.

I was just finishing my first year of graduate school when HGP leaders and President Clinton announced the working draft of the human genome.

Now I’m 31 and I’ve actually seen my own genetic data through 23andMe.

The totally mind blowing-ness of how quickly things have changed hit me today as I listened to two talks at the ASHG meeting in Philadelphia.

First, there was Jun Wang from the Beijing Genomics Institute. He and his colleagues recently published the first full genome sequence of an Asian individual. The numbers and statistics that he presented were all very impressive, but what struck me most were his descriptions of the logic behind two of his other endeavors, the Tree of Life project that is sequencing various crops and the Giant Panda Project: “Taste good, sequence it” and “Look cute, sequence it.”

Obviously there are good scientific reasons for both of these projects. But can you believe we live in a time where you literally could just sequence something’s genome because it was tasty or cuddly?!

The second talk that really drove home for me what a special genetic era we have entered into was by David Altschuler on behalf of the 1000 Genomes Project. This multi-national public/private endeavor is going to do exactly what its name suggests – targeted sequencing of 1000 peoples’ genomes to create the most complete catalogue of human variation ever.

The implications of the project are huge. But for me, a biologist who vaguely remembers that there was a time when people did science without much computer power or the internet, the craziest thing was when Altschuler put the sheer amount of data the project is producing into perspective: each week in September and October of this year the 1000 Genomes Project created the equivalent of all the data in GenBank. Each week! In 2009 the 1000 Genomes project expects to create 1 petabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) of data. For comparison Altschuler said that the Large Hadron Collider, which is expected to create 15 petabyes per year, has had to set up a system of 140 data centers in 33 countries.

Maybe you already know all this and aren’t that impressed anymore. Maybe you’re more concerned with what these and other researchers are actually going to do with all of this sequence data. But for just a second, I want you to think about how cool this all this. What other branch of science has ever moved so fast? One of the guys who discovered the structure of DNA is still around and has had his whole genome sequenced. And someday soon, you may have yours sequenced as well.

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs