An international project to read the entire genetic code of at least 1000 individuals will result in a comprehensive catalogue of human variation that will accelerate efforts to identify genetic factors involved in health and disease, scientists announced last week. The '1000 Genomes Project' will take advantage of new, fast DNA sequencing technologies and powerful computing techniques to find out how the genetic make-up of people from around the world varies from the 'reference' human genome unveiled in 2003. The consortium includes the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) in China and the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).
The first phase of the project will involve reading the genomes of just six people - two sets of parents and their adult children. This will allow the researchers to test the new technologies for sequencing DNA - that is, determining the order of the six billion DNA 'letters', or base-pairs, that make up the human genome. This will be followed by a less in-depth look at the genomes of a further 180 people, and then studies of about a 1000 different genes in 1000 individuals. These pilot studies are expected to last for about a year, with the rest of the project expected to take a further two years to complete, costing an estimated $30-50million.
The researchers hope that the results of this vast undertaking will allow them to identify new genetic variations involved in disease - even the more elusive ones that are only present in around one per cent of individuals. NHGRI director Francis Collins predicts that: 'This new project will increase the sensitivity of disease discovery efforts across the genome five-fold and within gene regions at least 10-fold', adding 'this will change the way we carry out studies of genetic disease'.
As well as detecting 'single letter' changes in DNA, called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), the project aims to provide a detailed picture of 'structural' variants - pieces of DNA that may be duplicated, missing or flipped around. Both types of DNA variation are thought to underlie human differences such as susceptibility to common diseases, and individual responses to drug treatments. 'This project reinforces our commitment to transform genomic information into tools that medical research can use to understand common disease', said Jun Wang, associate director of BGI, China.
The individuals being studied in the 1000 Genomes Project will remain anonymous, and the scientists are not collecting any medical or other information on the participants. However, the researchers hope that the project will eventually pave the way for the 'personal genomics' era of medicine, when it is envisaged that people will routinely have their entire genomes scanned for medically useful information.
Dr Jess Buxton is Contributing Editor at BioNews and a Trustee at the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is co-author of The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK).