All living creatures whether this is a plant, an animal or a microbe have a unique set of chemicals which determine what they are. This is coded by DNA, a series of paried chemicals and is known as the genome. Non living entities, such as viruses may also have a genome of either DNA or RNA.
Recent advances in technology have made it possible to study genomes in their entirety and this is bringing forth a wealth of information of biological interest. It is helping us to understand the differences between living organisms, to investigate the past and to decipher diseases, not just in humans, but in other animals and plants too.
But it is not just about disease and illness, for example new scientific areas such as metagenomics relate to the study of genetic material recovered from environmental samples; these data provide us with information which can be applied to medicine, ecology, agriculture and biotechnology.
The diversity of life and hence of the genomes that encode it are a wealth of information and opportunity that has barely been uncovered. The introduction of computers and the internet was the most recent recent technology revolution we can remember, the use of genomics will be the next.
Genomics is part of the science of genetics where DNA sequencing is used to decipher the code of an organism and to identify changes which may affect the function of its components. Bioinformatics is used to assemble and analyse these genomes to extract useful information for example, use in population monitoring, the development of new drugs and treatments and improving nutrition.
Bio-marker is an abbreviation for biological marker, which is in itself a way to measure a biological state. Biomarkers are of are of relevance to many fields such as medicine, ecology, cell biology , geology. They can be measured in cells or outside (e.g. circulating in the blood or in the environment) and give clues as to the current, past and future state of the subject under study.
We can examine bio-markers at many different levels, for example, genomic (mutation analysis), transcription, protein expression, epi-genomic or small molecule. Each have their uses and particularly so when used in concert with each other.
Generally in bio-marker use there is a discovery phase (e.g. in venture funded biotechs and academia) followed by important phases of biomarker validation (e.g. sensitivity, specificity, bioanalysis) and biomarker qualification (does it give a reliable clinical (or other) endpoint. We will be porviding a position paper on this subject in due course.
The Durham Genome Centre is a privately funded, commercial enterprise, where we take a holistic view of biology to help companies bring forth new products and services which are specifically related to either or both of genomics or biomarkers and to the sectors which supply them.
For human health, the era of genomic and bio-marker technology is bringing forth a paradigm shift in the way we think about preventing and treating conditions and diseases. It will extend the range of therapeutic options, lower the costs of treatment and increase efficacy.
For non human animals the use of genomics for conservation, population monitoring and pedigree and parentage determination and for species identification and quantitation (e.g. for food authentication) is also increasing rapidly
Equally for plants, genomics in conservation and identification and the use of biomarkers for quality control are all coming to the fore.
Our ability to detect and quanitify microbes using DNA technology (the microbiome) and look at changes in their populations is also likely to profoundly affect how we treat, monitor and use them (e.g. in nutrition).
All in all, it is an exceptionally exciting time to be a biologist and the Durham Genome Centre hopes to play its part.