Mining the Big Data Mountain

Cartoon of three men mining mountains of data

Credit: Chris Jones, NIH

Biomedical researchers and clinicians are generating an enormous, ever-expanding trove of digital data through DNA sequencing, biomedical imaging, and by replacing a patient’s medical chart with a lifelong electronic medical record. What can be done with all of this “Big Data”?

Besides being handy for patients and doctors, Big Data may provide priceless raw material for the next era of biomedical research. Today, I want to share an example of research that is leveraging the power of Big Data.

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DNA and the Roots of Hair Roots

An Asian family (adult male and female and two adolescents, male and female) sitting around a coffee table playing a board game

Researchers have discovered one genetic recipe for this family’s thick dark hair.
Source: National Cancer Institute, NIH; Bill Branson, photographer.

It’s intriguing to find the roots of physical traits: skin color, height, and those weird tufts of hair on Uncle Mike’s ears. We’re all curious to know why we look the way we do. But new technologies are allowing us to discover the precise genetic roots of human traits that vary across the world. Variations in our DNA have helped us resist diseases and adapt to different climates and foods, enabling us to colonize just about every environment on the planet.

Recent studies have pinpointed variations responsible for lighter skin in Northern climates (such as SLC24A5 [1]) and the ability to tolerate milk sugar (lactose) in adulthood [2]. But a new NIH-funded study of a gene variant that arose in China adds a fascinating wrinkle—the use of a mouse model to help understand a potential human advantage [3]. (Regular readers will note that last week in this space I wrote about how mouse models could sometimes be misleading—this week the mouse is a champion!)

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