16 March 2006

The Power of Open Genomics

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has announced the latest round of mega genome sequencing projects - effectively the follow-ons to the Human Genome Project. These are designed to provide a sense of genomic context, and to allow all the interesting hidden structures within the human genome to be teased out bioinformatically by comparing them with other genomes that diverged from our ancestors at various distant times.

Three more primates are getting the NHGRI treatment: the rhesus macacque, the marmoset and the orangutan. But alongside these fairly obvious choices, eight more mammals will be sequenced too. As the press release explains:

The eight new mammals to be sequenced will be chosen from the following 10 species: dolphin (Tursiops truncates), elephant shrew (Elephantulus species), flying lemur (Dermoptera species), mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus), horse (Equus caballus), llama (Llama species), mole (Cryptomys species), pika (Ochotona species), a cousin of the rabbit, kangaroo rat (Dipodomys species) and tarsier (Tarsier species), an early primate and evolutionary cousin to monkeys, apes, and humans.

If you are not quite sure whom to vote for, you might want to peruse a great page listing all the genomes currently being sequenced for the NHGRI, which provides links to a document (.doc, alas, but you can open it in OpenOffice.org) explaining why each is important (there are pix, too).

More seriously, it is worth noting that this growing list makes ever more plain the power of open genomics. Since all of the genomes will be available in public databases as soon as they are completed (and often before), this means that bioinformaticians can start crunching away with them, comparing species with species in various ways. Already, people have done the obvious things like comparing humans with chimpanzees, or mice with rats, but the possibilities are rapidly becoming extremely intriguing (tenrec and elephant, anyone?).

And beyond the simple pairing of genomes, which yields a standard square-law richness, there are even more inventive combinations involving the comparison of multiple genomes that may reveal particular aspects of the Great Digital Tree of Life, since everything may be compared with everything, without restriction. Now imagine trying to do this if genomes had been patented, and groups of them belonged to different companies, all squabbling over their "IP". The case for open genomics is proved, I think.

No comments: