What are the next steps in genomic research?
Discovering the sequence of the human genome was only the first step in understanding how the instructions coded in DNA lead to a functioning human being. The next stage of genomic research will begin to derive meaningful knowledge from the DNA sequence. Research studies that build on the work of the Human Genome Project are under way worldwide.
The objectives of continued genomic research include the following:
- Determine the function of genes and the elements that regulate genes throughout the genome.
- Find variations in the DNA sequence among people and determine their significance. The most common type of genetic variation is known as a single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP (pronounced “snip”). These small differences may help predict a person’s risk of particular diseases and response to certain medications.
- Discover the 3-dimensional structures of proteins and identify their functions.
- Explore how DNA and proteins interact with one another and with the environment to create complex living systems.
- Develop and apply genome-based strategies for the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of disease.
- Sequence the genomes of other organisms, such as the rat, cow, and chimpanzee, in order to compare similar genes between species.
- Develop new technologies to study genes and DNA on a large scale and store genomic data efficiently.
- Continue to explore the ethical, legal, and social issues raised by genomic research.
What are single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)?
Single nucleotide polymorphisms, frequently called SNPs (pronounced “snips”), are the most common type of genetic variation among people. Each SNP represents a difference in a single DNA building block, called a nucleotide. For example, a SNP may replace the nucleotide cytosine (C) with the nucleotide thymine (T) in a certain stretch of DNA.
SNPs occur normally throughout a person’s DNA. They occur almost once in every 1,000 nucleotides on average, which means there are roughly 4 to 5 million SNPs in a person’s genome. These variations may be unique or occur in many individuals; scientists have found more than 100 million SNPs in populations around the world. Most commonly, these variations are found in the DNA between genes.
They can act as biological markers, helping scientists locate genes that are associated with disease. When SNPs occur within a gene or in a regulatory region near a gene, they may play a more direct role in disease by affecting the gene’s function.
Most SNPs have no effect on health or development. Some of these genetic differences, however, have proven to be very important in the study of human health. Researchers have found SNPs that may help predict an individual’s response to certain drugs, susceptibility to environmental factors such as toxins, and risk of developing particular diseases. SNPs can also be used to track the inheritance of disease genes within families. Future studies will work to identify SNPs associated with complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
What are genome-wide association studies?
Genome-wide association studies are a relatively new way for scientists to identify genes involved in human disease. This method searches the genome for small variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced “snips”), that occur more frequently in people with a particular disease than in people without the disease.
Each study can look at hundreds or thousands of SNPs at the same time. Researchers use data from this type of study to pinpoint genes that may contribute to a person’s risk of developing a certain disease.
Because genome-wide association studies examine SNPs across the genome, they represent a promising way to study complex, common diseases in which many genetic variations contribute to a person’s risk. This approach has already identified SNPs related to several complex conditions including diabetes, heart abnormalities,
Parkinson disease, and Crohn disease. Researchers hope that future genome-wide association studies will identify more SNPs associated with chronic diseases, as well as variations that affect a person’s response to certain drugs and influence interactions between a person’s genes and the environment.