Friday, January 26, 2007

What do your genes say about you?

This week, the University of Hawaii had the honor of hosting arguably one of the most famous scientists in the world, J. Craig Venter. I went to his talk on Wednesday afternoon, entitled, "Genomes, Medicine, and the Environment". I was pretty excited about the event; it's not everyday you get to be in the same room with a scientist that receives over $100 million in funding every year. A real businessman, which is why I really like this picture. Dr. Venter and Mr. Hyde...

The introduction to the talk, given by our interim med-school dean, Gary Ostrander, summarized Venter's various awards, papers (33 pages in total for his CV), but also interesting tidbits like how Venter is on the Sci-Fi channel advisory board. When Venter finally got to speak, he began with a history lesson of every genome he has ever sequenced which includes a bacteria, a fruit fly, a mouse, his dog, and himself. It turns out he is more related to his dog than a mouse; of course, he used this information to break out the ol' "I look like my pet" joke. Perhaps he will enter in the contest next year, but instead of a photograph, he'll send the DNA sequence alignments.

In the "environment" part of his talk he summarized his new task of taking water samples all over the globe and sequencing whatever he finds. He does this by traveling around the world on his sloop, putting a bucket in the water, size-filtering said water on the boat, freezing the samples, and then fed-exing them to the sequencing facility in Maryland when he reaches a port of call. What a life! The results so far are kind of interesting: there is a lot of genetic diversity that has likely evolved as a result of the environment in which the animal resides. For instance, things that live around the turquoise blue waters of Bermuda have different photoreceptor genes than things that live in the fresh, green water of the Panama canal. Pretty neat.

Eventually, Venter would love for everyone to be able to sequence their own genomes, and we would all be in a data base showing all our sequence alignments. Thus, we could determine which part of the genome is responsible for X and Y diseases by looking at what sequences people with those diseases have in common. It's probably not this simple, but the implications of the way we address disease with designer genetic tools are very exciting. At this point, everything Venter is doing has been determined to be ethical and lawful, but who knows what the future holds. I think our generation will probably be treated with designer genetic tools. Will we live longer? Venter addressed the question from the "youngest" member of the audience (>65 year old man) with the statement, "We are not directly looking for longevity genes, no". Too bad.

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