We travel the road to 'mastery of our biological destiny'

Jan. 29, 2013

Genomics, the topic of this year's lecture series at the University of Arizona's College of Science, is not an inherently controversial topic.

It is the realm of scientists who sequence and assemble the entire set of DNA contained in each cell of an organism.

Genomics provides a road map for researchers in a variety of endeavors - biology, evolution, immunology, pharmacology, medicine, agriculture and more.

It has the potential to unlock the mysteries of our ancestry, feed the world, improve health, cure disease and lengthen productive lives.

In the public realm it also raises fears about the misuse of medical information, the danger of synthetic biology and concerns about our food supply, expressed in terms like "super weeds" and "Frankenfoods."

That is partly the reason for the lecture series, said Dr. Fernando Martinez, the pediatrician and asthma researcher who heads the UA's Bio5 Research Institute and will give the initial lecture Wednesday.

"The time has come for society to understand the genome," said Martinez.

He predicts that within the next 10 years, a personalized genome map will be made available to the parents of each child born in the United States.

That knowledge, combined with an increasing understanding of the function of individual genes and the epigenetic factors that influence how they work, he said, will make us "masters of our own biological destiny."

Epigenetics is the study of how identical DNA acts in different ways.

Knowledge of the genomes of food crops, meanwhile, will allow us to feed a worldwide population that will increase by 2 billion people before it reaches a predicted peak of 9 billion by 2050.

Genomics must play a role in that, Martinez said. "You can talk about it all you want, but we really have no alternative."

Rod Wing, director of the Arizona Genomics Institute, is pushing for an international campaign to meet the "9 billion problem" after years of honing research techniques for genomic sequencing.

He and researcher Qifa Zhang, of Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, China, are heading an effort to raise $9 billion from philanthropists and governments to establish research centers in six areas of the globe.

The goal is to map and sequence multiple varieties of rice, aiming for a catalog of "green super rice" species that would grow in various climates and adverse conditions around the world.

Each supertechnology center would focus on creating rice species that would grow best in its region - China, the United States, Africa, India, South America and Europe - and would share information with the others and with researchers elsewhere.

Wing, the fourth speaker in the weekly series, said he's a bit nervous about "giving my first public-policy talk."

He is accustomed to public speaking, but usually about his scientific expertise. He headed up research teams that helped decode the genomes of corn, rice, wheat and barley.

Rice took a worldwide effort over seven years and cost $150 million to complete in 2005.

Corn, sequenced in 2009, took four years and $30 million.

The price and the ease of sequencing improves yearly.

The first human genome, completed in 2003, was a 13-year endeavor, costing $3.8 billion.

Today, a reasonable map can be assembled by a single machine in a few days, leading to Martinez's promise that within the next decade, individual genome sequencing will become routine at birth.

He said that will allow us to control many chronic diseases.

"I don't like to use the word "cure," he said.

Martinez's talk will focus on the common understanding of the DNA code as the "software of life."

That metaphor breaks down, he said, when you look at individuals rather than species.

The random mutations that occur when genes are copied in reproduction are the source of some diseases, but they also allowed us to evolve into the thinking beings we have become, he said.

We have cured some diseases and meddled in natural selection. We have changed our environment in ways that both help and hinder our development.

"We have decided that accepting our natural fate with disease is unacceptable," Martinez said. "Significantly more people are surviving and natural selection is not occurring. We have to accept that we need to intervene."

Medicine and public health have advanced to the point where we already know what is best for most of the population, Martinez said. Exercise, for example, wards off cardiovascular diseases - except in those lean, healthy people who drop dead in the middle of a marathon run.

"For some people, exercise is not the key to cardiovascular health," he said.

Information from our genome will allow us to identify those exceptions to the rule.

Knowledge of epigenetics will help us figure out how our development and our environment affect our genes.

Biology is not destiny. It is controllable, said Martinez.

Mapping the functions of our genes "will allow us to tell people, 'If you do this, and don't do that, you will be more likely to do well,' " Martinez said.

"We have choices that will allow us to live longer."

On StarNet: Read a transcript of the chat Joaquin Ruiz, University of Arizona Colleges of Letters, Arts and Science executive dean, had with readers about genomics and science at http://azstarnet.com/multimedia


• What: "Genomics Now," UA College of Science lecture series

• When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Jan. 30 to March 6

• Where: Centennial Hall, 1020 W. University Blvd.

• Cost: Free

• Parking: Tyndall Avenue Garage is most convenient. A fee is charged. Note: The intersection of North Park Avenue and East University Boulevard is closed for streetcar construction. Take North Euclid Avenue to the East Fourth Street entrance to the garage.

• Information: 520-621-4090 or http://cos.arizona.edu/connections/genomics-now


"Are Genes the Software of Life?" - Fernando D. Martinez, M.D., director of the Bio5 Research Institute and the Arizona Respiratory Center

Feb. 6

"The Genesis of the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic" - Michael Worobey, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology

Feb. 13

"Genomics and the Complexity of Life" - Michael W. Nachman, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology

Feb. 20

"The 9 Billion-People Question" - Rod A. Wing, Bud Antle Endowed Chair, School of Plant Sciences, director of the Arizona Genomics Institute

Feb. 27

"Epigenetics: Why DNA Is Not Our Destiny" - Donata Vercelli, M.D.; professor of cellular and molecular medicine; director of the Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases

March 6

Genomics Tomorrow - A discussion of mankind's role and responsibilities in choosing to "modify" nature, moderated by UA Dean of Science Joaquin Ruiz.

"We have decided that accepting our natural fate with disease is unacceptable. Significantly more people are surviving and natural selection is not occurring. We have to accept that we need to intervene."

Dr. Fernando Martinez,

pediatrician and asthma researcher who heads the UA's Bio5 Research Institute

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

SOURCE: http://azstarnet.com/news/science/we- ... b4-9cb3-ad7d17df817c.html