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human genome

cortical organoid

Caption: Cortical organoid, showing radial glial stem cells (green) and cortical neurons (red).
Credit: Sofie Salama, University of California, Santa Cruz

In seeking the biological answer to the question of what it means to be human, the brain’s cerebral cortex is a good place to start. This densely folded, outer layer of grey matter, which is vastly larger in Homo sapiens than in other primates, plays an essential role in human consciousness, language, and reasoning.

Now, an NIH-funded team has pinpointed a key set of genes—found only in humans—that may help explain why our species possesses such a large cerebral cortex. Experimental evidence shows these genes prolong the development of stem cells that generate neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn enables the human brain to produce more mature cortical neurons and, thus, build a bigger cerebral cortex than our fellow primates.

That sounds like a great advantage for humans! But there’s a downside. Researchers found the same genomic changes that facilitated the expansion of the human cortex may also render our species more susceptible to certain rare neurodevelopmental disorders.

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Sulston-Hawking

Caption: Sir John Sulston (left) and Stephen Hawking (right)
Credit: Jane Gitschier, PLoS; Paul Alers, NASA

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve lost two legendary scientists who made major contributions to our world: Sir John Sulston and Stephen Hawking. Although they worked in very different areas of science—biology and physics—both have left us with an enduring legacy through their brilliant work that unlocked fundamental mysteries of life and the universe.

I had the privilege of working closely with John as part of the international Human Genome Project (HGP), a historic endeavor that successfully produced the first reference sequence of the human genetic blueprint nearly 15 years ago, in April 2003. As founding director of the Sanger Centre (now the Sanger Institute) in Cambridge, England, John oversaw the British contributions to this publicly funded effort. Throughout our many planning meetings and sometimes stormy weekly conference calls about progress of this intense and all-consuming enterprise, John stood out for his keen intellect and high ethical standards. (more…)

Posted In: Health, history, Science, Tribute

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MinION sequencing device

Caption: MinION sequencing device plugged into a laptop/Oxford Nanopore Technologies

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost 15 years since we successfully completed the Human Genome Project, ahead of schedule and under budget. I was proud to stand with my international colleagues in a celebration at the Library of Congress on April 14, 2003 (which happens to be my birthday), to announce that we had stitched together the very first reference sequence of the human genome at a total cost of about $400 million. As remarkable as that achievement was, it was just the beginning of our ongoing effort to understand the human genome, and to use that understanding to improve human health.

That first reference human genome was sequenced using automated machines that were the size of small phone booths. Since then, breathtaking progress has been made in developing innovative technologies that have made DNA sequencing far easier, faster, and more affordable. Now, a report in Nature Biotechnology highlights the latest advance: the sequencing and assembly of a human genome using a pocket-sized device [1]. It was generated using several “nanopore” devices that can be purchased online with a “starter kit” for just $1,000. In fact, this new genome sequence—completed in a matter of weeks—includes some notoriously hard-to-sequence stretches of DNA, filling several key gaps in our original reference genome.

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Word cloudThe human genome contains more than 20,000 protein-coding genes, which carry the instructions for proteins essential to the structure and function of our cells, tissues and organs. Some of these genes are very similar to each other because, as the genomes of humans and other mammals evolve, glitches in DNA replication sometimes result in extra copies of a gene being made. Those duplicates can be passed along to subsequent generations and, on very rare occasions, usually at a much later point in time, acquire additional modifications that may enable them to serve new biological functions. By starting with a protein shape that has already been fine-tuned for one function, evolution can produce a new function more rapidly than starting from scratch.

Pretty cool! But it leads to a question that’s long perplexed evolutionary biologists: Why don’t duplicate genes vanish from the gene pool almost as soon as they appear? After all, instantly doubling the amount of protein produced in an organism is usually a recipe for disaster—just think what might happen to a human baby born with twice as much insulin or clotting factor as normal. At the very least, duplicate genes should be unnecessary and therefore vulnerable to being degraded into functionless pseudogenes as new mutations arise over time

An NIH-supported team offers a possible answer to this question in a study published in the journal Science. Based on their analysis of duplicate gene pairs in the human and mouse genomes, the researchers suggest that extra genes persist in the genome because of rapid changes in gene activity. Instead of the original gene producing 100 percent of a protein in the body, the gene duo quickly divvies up the job [1]. For instance, the original gene might produce roughly 50 percent and its duplicate the other 50 percent. Most importantly, organisms find the right balance and the duplicate genes can easily survive to be passed along to their offspring, providing fodder for continued evolution.

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Hanners Family

Caption: Whole genome sequencing revealed that sisters Addison and Trinity Hanners, ages 7 and 10, shown here with their mother Hanna, have a rare syndrome caused by a mutation in the MAGEL2 gene.
Credit: Courtesy of the Hanners family

At the time that we completed a draft of the 3 billion letters of the human genome about a decade ago, it would have cost about $100 million to sequence a second human genome. Today, thanks to advances in DNA sequencing technology, it will soon be possible to sequence your genome or mine for  $1,000 or less. All of this progress has made genome sequencing a far more realistic clinical option to consider for people, especially children, who suffer from baffling disorders that can’t be precisely diagnosed by other medical tests.

While researchers are still in the process of evaluating genome sequencing for routine clinical use, and data analysis continues to be a major challenge, one area of considerable promise centers on neurodevelopmental disorders. Such disorders—which affect about 3 percent of children—range from relatively common conditions like autism spectrum disorder to very rare conditions that impair the development of the brain or central nervous system. In the latest study, an NIH-funded research team reports that sequencing either a patient’s whole genome or whole exome (the 1.5 percent of the genome that encodes proteins) appears to be an effective—as well as a cost-effective—strategy for diagnosing neurodevelopmental disorders that have eluded diagnosis through standard means.

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