Essays on Science and SocietyGenome-Sequencing Anniversary

Famine in the Presence of the Genomic Data Feast

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Science  18 Feb 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6019, pp. 874
DOI: 10.1126/science.1203261
CREDIT: SOPHIE MONGALVY/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Current graduate students cannot conceive of the world before the human genome was available for their daily practical tasks. In Africa, the shortage of resources (in terms of scientists, equipment, and operating funds) for data acquisition has made the publicly available data particularly valuable. However, in a sense, the sheer volume of accessible data is a drawback. We have been made acutely aware of our need for computational tools and expertise, exacerbated by the brain drain through emigration of those who acquire these scarce skills.

For complex analyses such as admixture mapping or copy-number variation, we often now have the data spread out in a tantalizing buffet, but are left feeling as though we are looking into the dining room window, our noses are pressed to the glass. The solution, to avoid simply exporting data or samples, is North-South collaboration and the formation of consortia to maximize the promise of the information still locked in the rich variety of African genomes. In a wholly South African effort, publicly available data allowed us to dissect the structure of a uniquely African population. Further application of this knowledge required us to foster collaborations with more experienced laboratories and researchers, which are already showing results.

Human genome analysis has the potential to act as an accelerating enabler, helping us to understand how an individual's genome may affect susceptibility to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Approaches such as genome-wide association studies have been disappointing in this disease, and a search for rare variants—or simply understanding variation in the older, more diverse African populations—may hold some answers. Ultimately, local initiatives need to grow local expertise and to retain the necessary talent.

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