Genomics 101

What is Genomics?

Genomics is the study of the structure, function, evolution and mapping of genomes. Genomes are the complete set of each organism’s genetic instructions, the DNA that allows it to develop and maintain itself. The genome contains chromosomes, which in turn contain genes. The genes contain the DNA that is the actual code of the instructions for the life form. The study of genes includes a number of disciplines that help researchers to understand and manipulate the DNA code that governs all living things.

Genomics in Research

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the chemical compound responsible for the development and activities of all living organisms. The molecule is made up of two strands that known as the double helix. Within the DNA strand is contained the four letter code that is used to build every living thing. Four nucleotide bases make up the strands. Adenine, cystosine, guanine and thymine are arranged in unique ways to produce the variations in living organisms and the ways in which they function to survive. Genomes are studied in order to understand the proteins that make up and sustain all these life forms. Although the field of study is relatively new, only about a decade old, a great deal of information has been compiled about how genes behave and what individual genes do. The study of genomics is generally divided into two categories:

  • Structural genomics – this area of gene research attempts to discern the structure of a genome. The structure of genomes strongly determine how the genes function, based on where they are located and how the genes fold. This information is used to learn the general rules of the structure and function of all genomes.
  • Comparative genomics – this area of study looks at how the DNA structure is related from one living creature to another. The work allows scientists to identify and predict certain regions of similar behavior within the DNA.

Genomics Today

Human genome research is providing new methods of treating illnesses. Genomics currently provides genetic information that helps determine the best strategy to prevent and treat modern health conditions/illnesses.

The field of genomics promises to bring a greater understanding of how genes function and how they can be manipulated for improving human health and better quality of life for mankind. The research will continue to expand into other areas of the biological sciences to provide a greater understanding of how the genome evolves and adapts to changing conditions.

Genomics and Health

The most recent trends in genomics holds the most extraordinary promise to date: the personal identification of individual genetic coding/genomic patterns. This information is revolutionizing the healthcare industry by  providing individuals with the ability to take control of their own health through the prevention and treatment of a vast array of diseases and health conditions. Personalized genetic programming also gives us the ability to optimize our athletic, cognitive, and physical performance.

The idea that you, as an individual, have an incredible amount of control over your own personal health is astounding. But what exactly can you do when armed with your own genetic information? After all, healthy lifestyle choices are already common knowledge. Proper nutrition, regular exercise, stress management are some of the keystones for a long and healthy life. Right? In part, overall healthy lifestyle choices do make a difference. But this is the shotgun approach doesn’t guarantee that your efforts will be successful. It is now common knowledge that by not smoking you will reduce your chance of developing lung cancer. However, current studies can only give us statistical analysis of what is and isn’t healthy for us as a whole. This does not address the specific predisposition individual’s may have to certain conditions given specific sets of environmental factors. Some people may be more prone to lung cancer than other people, regardless of the environment. If your genetic blueprint provides you with information about your predisposition to lung cancer, you can take very specific steps to monitor that particular aspect of your health. You can also take preventative measures against ever developing lung cancer.

This same line of thinking applies to almost all health concerns, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other forms of cancer. Individual blueprints provide you with the ability to monitor conditions you may be more prone to developing, avoid environmental factors that would lead to specific diseases and health conditions, and select lifestyle choices that will enhance optimal health specific to you.

There is an age-old debate among biologists and sociologists known as nature versus nurture. This debate originally discussed behavioral differences of people based on what was innate (genetically coded for) versus the role the environment played in forming their personality and behavior. While not completely resolved, the concept that both nature and nurture contribute to the personality of the individual is now accepted. It is only a matter of degrees that is now being debated. If an individual has a predisposition to being a certain way, something environmental may trigger that behavior to emerge. The same is true for health conditions. An individual may carry a gene that leads to a greater chance of developing arthritis, but without contributing environmental triggers, the condition may never surface. You may actually be able to completely avoid arthritis by avoiding very specific environmental factors. These factors may be as simple as not engaging in high impact exercise and increasing certain foods or supplements. Not only does this knowledge help you avoid developing arthritis and the debilitating pain, it will also save you from enduring medical treatments for the condition, including associated financial costs. The high quality of your life continues well into old age without pain and financial burden. Now consider the myriad of other health conditions and diseases that may be avoided by taking specific steps based on your genetic blueprint and you can begin to envision the magnitude of this biological technology. Every ailment known to humankind may one day be avoidable or more simply treated before potential healthcare issues become real issues. This includes some of the leading causes of death such as heart disease, stroke, COPD, diabetes, and cancer. The ability to control personal health through information is a radical proposition. When you have very specific information about your unique genetic code, you are more likely to monitor your environmental factors. This information is not simply generic should and should nots but is specific to you, giving you a personalized blueprint for maintaining and optimizing health. Another important area of genomics being researched is drug interactions based on individual genetic make-up. Pharmocogenomics combines pharmacology and genetics to find medications suitable to an individual’s specific genetic coding. With an understanding of drug interactions and genetic coding, you and your doctor will know what medications are safe and effective  and specific for your needs. When you determine what to avoid in the environment, you also determine your personal lifestyle choices. If you know you have a predisposition for skin cancer, you know to avoid spending too much time in the sun. Perhaps being a beachcomber is out of the question. You will have control over your personal health and the quality of your life through the knowledge of your specific genetic code.The recent trends in the field of genomics have the incredible potential to change our lives in ways never imagined by the early researchers: Gregory Mendel, Francis Crick, or James Watson. Their journey continues on today as genomics comes into its own age, leading us from grand biological paradigms to personal and useful applications that hold the promise of enriching the lives of all humankind.