The Gene Genie – A review of November’s SciBar

As we reach the end of the month, it’s time to hear about some science in the bar. The science – Sequencing the human genome with Dr Matt Loose. The bar – The Vat & Fiddle in Nottingham.

We start with some scene setting courtesy of the movie GATTACA. While the guy sat next to me was making some copious notes on the subject at hand, all I could think about was how young Jude Law looked in the movie poster.

First up are the basics and a quick history lesson. There are 3,381,944,081 base pairs in the human genome. So looking at 30 per second, you could get through the whole lot in 3.5 years. Back in the 1970s, a gel tank was used in sequencing. These could sequence 5,600 base pairs per day. So, it would have only taken 1,500 years to sequence the whole human genome. Fortunately by 2002, technology had improved so that you can sequence 1,000,000 per day – just 9 years to sequence the lot now!

The main advantage that system had though was that it could be run by 6th form students! By 2003, the US government had prevented patents being taken out for the human genome. This wiped $50B off the value of NASDEQ overnight. At least there was still some money in the economy – sequencing a human genome cost $3B.

By 2007, a breakthrough had happened – they started sequencing more of less DNA. Rather than look at thousands of thousands of base pairs, they started looking at millions of hundreds of base pairs. Cutting down sequencing to a super speedy seven days, this helped James Watt publish his own genome. Although he kept back some regions – so we don’t know any of his weaknesses.

These days, you can sequence a human genome for $1,000 and for a bargain $10M, you can buy a machine that sequences up to 50 people’s genomes a day. Seems like a pretty good deal to me. If only I had a spare $10M lying around.

Back in real life, we were all doing an experiment. It was a PTC demo where we all put a strip on our tongues and had to see if we could taste anything. In common with 50% of the population, I couldn’t taste a thing. Some people had quite a reaction though. Apparently smokers or people who eat lots of brussels sprouts are less likely to taste anything (I put my svelte figure down to my exclusive sprout diet) It’s a single base change between those who can taste it and those who can’t. Similarly, a single base change in an amino acid can lead to a different protein which determines whether you suffer from premature ageing.

The future of human genome sequencing in the UK is the imaginatively named 100,000 Genome Project. Of the 100,000 planned people, 60,000 will be “normal” and the other 40,000 will either have a rare disease or cancer. 80% of rare diseases are caused by genomic changes. Those with the rare diseases will also have the gnomes of their parents mapped while those with cancer will also have their tumour sequenced.

Interestingly, back in 2011, Steve Jobs paid $100,000 to have his genome and also the genome of the tumour that killed him sequenced ($50,000 each)

The big question though is what is the government going to do with these 100,000 pieces of information? It’s going to be made anonymous and then is going to be freely available to academics. However, it’s also going to be available to medical companies for a price. Will it just be used to develop personalised healthcare? Or could insurance companies get hold of it? What if it turns out that brunettes are statistically more predisposed to a fatal condition? Would that mean that they could put my premiums up? Maybe I should bleach it again.

All in all a fantastic talk although I would have liked to have heard a little more about the work that Matt is doing with salamanders. He did handle the Q and A session really well, especially as it ranged from someone who had a subscription to 3/4 “proper science” magazines to a drunken guy who I think walked into the room by mistake (at one point, he stood up, announced to the room that he was going for a cigarette and then started a rambling anecdote about someone who was convicted of murder through DNA fingerprinting 25 years after the crime)

For some reason there isn’t a Sci Bar next month. The last Wednesday of the month is New Year’s Eve but I would have thought that scientists would have been able to look past the arbitrary dating of the Gregorian calendar. So, Sci Bar will be back in January.