Decoding the Genome Mystery

"Sometimes it's good not to know how big the challenge is," says Sridhar Sivasubbu, research scientist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) in New Delhi, where the recent whole genome sequencing of wild type zebrafish was carried out. Sivasubbu led a bunch of MSc pass-outs, who had no training in genomics, to sequence about 1.7 billion genetic alphabets that make up the full genome of a zebrafish. "Suppose they had been trained, they would have felt it was a huge task," he says.

Perhaps this is why the team finished the task in just 58 days. The striped fish, a popular aquariums fish and said to be an ideal organism to study human genes, was India's first vertebrate to have its whole genome sequenced. Previously, Indian scientists had only sequenced bacteria and plant genomes.

Building on the success of the project, the institute is now embarking on the ambitious Project Kaurav, which involves comparing genetic variations in 100 siblings from a single parent zebrafish.

Apart from the zebrafish sequencing, Sivasubbu's team has also been working on a project on genomic annotation for which the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research—the chief sponsor of the zebrafish sequencing project—has aligned with Mayo Clinic in the US. "Sequencing the genome is the first step. Providing meaning to the various parts of the genome is the next," says Sivasubbu. Annotation helps identify functions of the various parts of the genome.

In the near future, India could venture into whole genome sequencing of humans. "We've found that certain diseases common in Africa do not affect Indians. Having an Indian genome will help us understand why," says Sivasubbu. "We already have US, European and African genomes, but it will be interesting to have an Indian genome."

Sivasubbu foresees the possibility of a patient walking into a doctor's office and getting his whole genome sequenced some day. "We could then predict what disease you're predisposed to," he says.

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