Albuquerque Tribune: Opinion Jan 1, 2000

Following the coil of life

Cutting-edge research into DNA will open new worlds of understanding -- and economic opportunity -- to N.M. But only if the state grabs hold of it.

By Maggie Werner-Washburne


One-thousand, or even 100 years, ago, it would have been impossible to imagine our lives today. During the 20th century, scientific and technological discoveries have changed life on earth. In 100 years, humans have gone from riding horseback to traveling in the space shuttle, from daily deliveries of ice to microwave ovens and from relative isolation to the Internet. As we greet the year 2000, science, aided by technological advances, is poised on the edge of revolutionary discoveries, as the complete genetic code for more and more organisms, including human beings, is deciphered. Science has moved from the discovery that the laws of genetics can be determined by studying seed color to knowing and potentially manipulating all of the the genetic material in an organism.

This revolution will have enormous impacts not only on medicine, biology, and engineering and computer sciences but will also drive world-wide economic development. It is estimated that in less than 10 years the income from genomics-related products alone will $45 billion. New Mexicans will be able to contribute to improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, diabetes and asthma; identification and characterization of trillions of unknown microorganisms beneficial to agriculture and the environment; to utilization of as-yet-unknown biochemical pathways in the development of novel materials and technologies; and to the development of more-productive crops that require less water, fertilizer and insecticides. genetic research. With the right support, New Mexico has the potential to take a leadership role in the education and training of a diverse work force, as well to function as an incubator for computer-intensive, biotechnology start-up companies.

Essentially, all of the information needed to reconstruct an organism is stored as a code in DNA in each cell of that organism. The DNA present in one cell is called a "genome," and, with the exception of identical twins or clones, each organism's genome is distinct from the genome of every other organism. Genomics is the study of the complete DNA sequence of an organism and the proteins and other molecules that the DNA encodes. It is a massive undertaking, not unlike sending a man to the moon. If each single "letter," or base, of the DNA code were expressed as a character in 12-point type (only slightly larger than the type you're reading now), the human genome would stretch the 3,500 miles from coast to coast of the United States. Because all living organisms have DNA, what we learn about genomes extends from human health and biology to even the smallest forms of life.

Microbial genomics Genomics has made us realize that there are many more microorganisms on the planet than previously thought. As each microbial genome sequence becomes available, scientists are also struck by the many components of these cells that have never been studied before. Of the 25 microbial genomes that have been sequenced, we do not know the function of about half of the proteins, and about a quarter are unique to the organism in which they were found. Thus, microorganisms are carrying out many biochemical processes about which nothing is known. So far, about half of all the genes found in plant and animal genome projects, including the human genome project, also encode proteins with no known function. It could take the next 100 years to figure out what all these proteins do.

Because many of the unique genes are found to be required for the specific microbe to live, they are good targets for new types of antibiotics that are sorely needed and have yet to be identified. The human genome: implications for human health As the human genome is deciphered, scientists will identify more genes that cause disease. The defective genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease and certain types of inherited breast cancer have already been identified, and more "disease genes" are forthcoming. There will be new types of treatments for disease, including the introduction of genes that will cause production of medicines within the body.

There will no doubt be many major discoveries as the human genome is analyzed. For example, the size of the human genome appears to be larger than previously thought, by up to half a billion base pairs. The estimate for the number of human genes has already been increased from 60,000 to about 120,000. Amazingly, there could be as many as 80,000 proteins in human cells whose functions are not known but that are critical for life.

The challenge: too much data

Genomics is causing a major reorganization of biological research. A major challenge is presented by the need to analyze large sets of data resulting from the comparison of billions of bases of DNA sequence and the analysis of the expression of thousands of genes at once. Researchers around the world have found that the only way to meet this challenge is through broad collaborations among biologists, computer scientists, engineers and medical researchers.

The world of genomics outside New Mexico. Many institutions and industries in the United States and elsewhere have recognized the vast potential of genomics and have made massive investments in this area. In the United States, Harvard University has committed $150-200 million for an effort that includes the Center for Genomics Research. The University of Florida's Board of Regents has committed $60 million for their Genetics Institute. Cal Tech has committed $100 million for the Biological Sciences Initiative. All of these new institutes involve interdisciplinary research ranging from medicine and biology to engineering and law.

Ethics The ability to determine exact genetic differences between individuals has both scientific and ethical implications. Because of these implications, both the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy have large programs to address the ethical, legal and social implications of the Human Genome Project. The questions, "Who owns DNA?" and "Who has the right to know about your DNA?" are examples of the important ethical issues in genomics. The question of ownership of DNA is an issue of great importance, especially to American Indians. For example, the analysis of DNA is being used to study human migration and origins. But this research is based on examining DNA from ancient bones and may contradict tribal history passed down by oral tradition. Information on the predisposition for various illnesses could also be used to discriminate against individuals applying for jobs or health insurance. Currently, the state of New Mexico extracts and saves DNA from every person accused of a sex crime. Is it clear to every individual what use will be made of his or her DNA? These issues must be discussed at the state and tribal levels, so that educated decisions can be made to protect the rights of tribes and individuals, while making it possible to participate in the tremendous positive benefits of genomic research.

Genomics and New Mexico New Mexico's participation in genomics has been significant but limited. Los Alamos National Laboratory was where the idea for the human genome project was developed, where the first DNA sequence database -- Genbank -- was established, and where human chromosome XVI is being sequenced. The National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe focuses on bioinformatics, a discipline that brings together biology and computer sciences to organize and analyze complex data. For the past 6 years, the Neurospora Genome Project at the University of New Mexico has been one of two genome projects in the country whose goal has been to train undergraduates in genomics and computational biology. New Mexico's resources New Mexico brings numerous strengths to genome research. The national laboratories at Sandia and Los Alamos bring some of the world's top scientists and engineers, massive computer capacity and science and engineering research infrastructure, including genomics. The Santa Fe Institute provides expertise in the analysis of complex systems. The National Center for Genome Resources is developing increasingly powerful bioinformatics resources. New Mexico State University has great strengths in plant molecular biology and engineering. UNM's main campus brings expertise in the biological and related sciences, engineering and the Albuquerque High Performance Computing Center. The UNM Health Sciences Center brings its depth and expertise in biomedical research and training and in its nationally ranked New Mexico Tumor Registry and established Human Research Review Committee.

The expertise at NMSU and UNM in undergraduate and graduate education are extremely important for the development of genomics research in the state. Economic impact Genomics is one part of a larger economic plan that could move New Mexico off the bottom of the economic ladder in the next century. By capitalizing on its strengths, New Mexico can take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to dramatically improve education and create economic growth and good-paying, environmentally friendly jobs. Despite New Mexico's wealth of talent, it is not clear that the state will be able to support the larger research programs that would drive both economic and educational development. The window of time for New Mexico to build the infrastructure for genomics research is rapidly closing.

The Southwest Genomics and Biotechnology Alliance In the past year, researchers from Los Alamos, Sandia, UNM and NMSU created the Southwest Genomics and Biotechnology Alliance, with the expressed purpose of forming a regional alliance to develop genomics research in New Mexico. The alliance's long-term goals are to use genomics to drive economic and educational development in the Southwest. But while the talent and experience exist in New Mexico, the money to build this infrastructure is lacking. The millennium challenge As we approach the year 2000, how do we make it more than just a change in how we write our checks? In 1,000 years, it is unlikely that we will be around or that our names will be household words. Life will have changed at least as much as it has from medieval times to now. Will the dent we made in the flow of life be visible? In 100 years, as we beam ourselves from Albuquerque to Las Cruces eating our vitamin-packed chili that prevents aging, will we feel the sense of pride that we invested in providing the scientific and technological basis for environmental-friendly growth throughout the state? There is a Taoist saying for the New Year -- for all of us, including the governor and the Legislature: "Time is fleeting, learning is vast. No one knows the duration of one's life. Therefore, choose the swan's art of extracting milk from water and devote thyself to the most precious path." The best thing we can do for the next 100 years is to make today count. Invest wisely. -----------------------------------

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