James Watson’s genome published today

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Yours will follow!

Friday, 18 April 2008: available for interviews this morning.

Today the co-discoverer of the double helix, James Watson, had his genome published in the journal Nature. His was the second genome published. The first cost billions. Watson’s genome cost just a few hundred thousand.

In a decade your personal genetic code will be available for a thousand dollars or so. “This news is the crest of a giant wave in personal genomics that is coming,” says US geneticist Eddy Rubin, who is visiting Melbourne this week to mark the first ten years of Australia’s national genome research facility (the AGRF).

Having access to your personal genome info will be tremendously empowering,” says Australian geneticist John Mattick.  “In the not too distant future you’ll be able to find out, in conjunction with your doctor, the personal risk of things like heart disease. And there may be things you don’t want to know. James Watson has chosen not to find out about his risk of Alzheimer’s.

Already in the United States, several companies have begun to offer personal genome analysis — while they don’t offer a complete sequencing service, they do offer an analysis of individual variation.

Rubin says it will revolutionise our view of our genome. To date, scientists have focused on disease biology, he says, as this has life and death implications. But he sees the interest returning to normal biology — why one person likes spicy food, why my daughter has red hair, why your friend can run faster than you.

The ability to rapidly read and translate genetic code is also transforming science.

Rubin’s particular interests are in harnessing genomics to unlock the secrets of biofuels. Currently the biofuel feedstock of choice, in the US especially, is corn, but it is a really inefficient, carbon-intensive way of producing biofuels.

Rubin is investigating a variety of alternatives, including grasses and trees that can be grown on non-agricultural lands, and bacteria that can easily convert cellulose-rich plant fibres into useful biofuels.

He says the time is right for an explosion of research into this area, There is an urgent need for new fuel sources giving an incentive to energy companies and governments to investigate viable alternatives.

There may also be a place for genomic science to assist with overcoming other global challenges of our times such as capturing CO2 and dealing with climate change.

According to one of Australia’s genome experts John Mattick, the genome is revolutionising biology.

“Genomics is going ballistic,” he says. “It’s fusing with genetics, and this is leading to an explosion of discovery as we unravel the biochemical mechanisms that underpin phenotypic traits. And it provides a window to the diversity of life.”

Mattick says it’s marking an end to the old reductionist model of research and shifting to systems biology. Your research will be severely limited if you don’t have access to the genome of your research subject.

And he says it’s a train that everyone needs to jump on. “Whoever generates and uses this information will lead the next generation of applications,” he says.

Rubin agrees. “Genomics is a vital infrastructure for anything related to biology,” he says. “Countries will fall behind if they don’t invest in providing genomic infrastructure for their researchers.”

Today Australian researchers firmly agreed that with the new tools available the cost of genome science is dramatically reduced, making it far more accessible.

“It’s now the right time for Australia to fund the generation of genomic data to enable us to understand and manage the genetic information of our native flora and fauna,” says Sue Forrest, Director of the AGRF.