The human phenome project

"Olivia Judson on the influence of science and biology on modern life":
In 1884, a man called Francis Galton opened the doors of his “Anthropometric Laboratory.” This was “for the use of those who desire to be accurately measured in many ways, either to obtain timely warning of remediable faults in development, or to learn their powers.” The many ways included height, hand strength, acuity of sight and hearing, lung capacity and the power of a blow with the fist. [. . .]

He was interested in the biology of racial differences. He was the first to describe humans as being the products of the twin forces of “nature and nurture.” [. . .] It is easy to imagine that, if Galton were magicked into the present, he would have been fascinated by the human genome project, and anxious to get himself sequenced. And yet, in some ways, his anthropomorphic laboratory, crude though it was, makes as good a symbol for 21st century biology as a gene sequencer does.

Genes are the easy part. Soon, we will all be able to get our genomes fully sequenced: we will be able to look at our genotypes. We may not know what all the genes do — it will still be some time before we have mastered that. But we will know what they are.

The far harder task is to understand how genes interact with the environment to make an actual organism with particular characteristics — that is, the phenotype. [. . .]

Measuring all this sounds impossible. Yet at least two phenomics initiatives are already underway. One is the U.K.’s Biobank project, the other is the Personal Genome Project, led by the latter-day polymath George Church. The aim of both projects is to collect large quantities of information — genetic, phenotypic and environmental — from large numbers of people, in an attempt to understand how genes and environment interact to produce each of us. Biobank, indeed, measures some of the same traits that Galton measured, including lung capacity and the strength of the hand grip.
Incidentally, I was not surprised to see that the UK Biobank receives funding from the Wellcome Trust, which funds all medical/genetics research in the UK (slight exaggeration). The charity's namesake is an American of New England Puritan stock.

No comments: