This is a guest post by Danny Wilson from the University of Oxford. Danny was recently awarded a Wellcome Trust/Royal Society fellowship at the Nuffield Department of Medicine, and in this post he tells us why you cannot understand human genetics without studying the genetics of microbes. If you are a geneticist who finds this post interesting, he is currently hiring.
Never mind about sequencing your own genome. Only 10% of cells on your “human” body are human anyway, the rest are microbial. And their genomes are far more interesting.
For one thing, there’s a whole ecosystem out there, made up of many species. Typically a person harbours 1,000 or more different species in their gut alone. For another, a person’s health is to a large part determined by the microbes that live on their body, whether that be as part of a long-term commensal relationship or an acute pathogenic interaction.
With 20% of the world’s deaths still attributable to infectious disease, the re-emergence of ancient pathogens driven by ever-increasing antibiotic resistance, and the UK’s 100K Genome Project– many of which will have to be genomes from patients (i.e. microbes) rather than patients’ own genomes given its budget – pathogen genomics is very much at the top of the agenda.
So what do pathogen genomes have to tell us? Continue reading ‘Guest post: Human genetics is microbial genomics’
This guest post from Daniel Howrigan, Benjamin Neale, Elise Robinson, Patrick Sullivan, Peter Visscher, Naomi Wray and Jian Yang (see biographies at end of post) describes their recent rebuttal of a paper claiming to have developed a new approach to genetic prediction of autism. This story has also been covered by Ed Yong and Emily Willingham. Genomes Unzipped authors Luke Jostins, Jeff Barrett and Daniel MacArthur were also involved in the rebuttal.
Last year, in a paper published in Molecular Psychiatry, Stan Skafidas and colleagues made a remarkable claim: a simple genetic test could be used to predict autism risk from birth. The degree of genetic predictive power suggested by the paper was unprecedented for a common disease, let alone for a disease as complex and poorly understood as autism. However, instead of representing a revolution in autism research, many scientists felt that the paper illustrated the pitfalls of pursuing genetic risk prediction. After nearly a year of study, two papers have shown how the Skafidas et al. study demonstrates the dangers of poor experimental design and biases due to important confounders.
The story in a nutshell: the Skafidas paper proposes a method for generating a genetic risk score for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) based on a small number of SNPs. The method is fairly straightforward – analyze genetic data from ASD case samples and from publicly available controls to develop, test, and validate a prediction algorithm for ASD. The stated result – Skafidas et al. claim successful prediction of ASD based on a subset of 237 SNPs. For the downstream consumer, the application is simple – have your doctor take a saliva sample from your newborn baby, send in the sample to get genotyped, and get a probability of your child developing ASD. It would be easy to test fetuses and for prospective parents to consider abortions if the algorithm suggested high risk of ASD.
The apparent simplicity is refreshing and, from the lay perspective, the result will resonate above all the technical jargon of multiple-testing correction, linkage disequilibrium (LD), or population stratification that dominates our field. This is what makes this paper all the more dangerous, because lurking beneath the appealing results is flawed methodology and design as we describe below.
We begin our critique with the abstract from Skafidas et al. (emphasis added):
Continue reading ‘Guest post: the perils of genetic risk prediction in autism’
Barbara Prainsack is at the Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine at King’s College London. Her work focuses on the social, regulatory and ethical aspects of genetic science and medicine.
More than seven years ago, my colleague Gil Siegal and I wrote a paper about pre-marital genetic compatibility testing in strictly orthodox Jewish communities. We argued that by not disclosing genetic results at the level of individuals but exclusively in terms of the genetic compatibility of the couple, this practice gave rise to a notion of “genetic couplehood”, conceptualizing genetic risk as a matter of genetic jointness. We also argued that this particular method of genetic testing worked well for strictly orthodox communities but that “genetic couplehood” was unlikely to go mainstream.
Then, last month, a US patent awarded to 23andMe – which triggered heated debates in public and academic media (see here, here, here, here and here, for instance) – seemed to prove this wrong. The most controversially discussed part of the patent was a claim to a method for gamete donor selection that could enable clients of fertility clinics a say in what traits their future offspring was likely to have. The fact that these “traits” include genetic predispositions to diseases, but also to personality or physical and aesthetic characteristics, unleashed fears that a Gattaca-style eugenicist future is in the making. Critics have also suggested that the consideration of the moral content of the innovation could or should have stopped the US Patent and Trademark Office from awarding the patent.
Continue reading ‘Guest post: 23andMe’s “designer baby” patent: When corporate governance and open science collide’
This is a guest post by Graham Coop and Peter Ralph, cross-posted from the Coop Lab website.
We’ve been addressing some of the FAQs on topics arising from our paper on the geography of recent genetic genealogy in Europe (PLOS Biology). We wanted to write one on shared genetic material in personal genomics data but it got a little long, and so we are posting it as its own blog post.
Personal genomics companies that type SNPs genome-wide can identify blocks of shared genetic material between people in their databases, offering the chance to identify distant relatives. Finding a connection to someone else who is an unknown relative is exciting, whether you do this through your family tree or through personal genomics (we’ve both pored over our 23&me results a bunch). However, given the fact that nearly everyone in Europe is related to nearly everyone else over the past 1000 years (see our recent paper and FAQs), and likely everyone in the world is related over the past ~3000 years, how should you interpret that genetic connection?
Continue reading ‘Identification of genomic regions shared between distant relatives’
This is a guest post by Peter Cheng and Eliana Hechter from the University of California, Berkeley.
Suppose that you’ve had your DNA genotyped by 23andMe or some other DTC genetic testing company. Then an article shows up in your morning newspaper or journal (like this one) and suddenly there’s an additional variant you want to know about. You check your raw genotypes file to see if the variant is present on the chip, but it isn’t! So what next? [Note: the most recent 23andMe chip does include this variant, although older versions of their chip do not.]
Genotype imputation is a process used for predicting, or “imputing”, genotypes that are not assayed by a genotyping chip. The process compares the genotyped data from a chip (e.g. your 23andMe results) with a reference panel of genomes (supplied by big genome projects like the 1000 Genomes or HapMap projects) in order to make predictions about variants that aren’t on the chip. If you want a technical review of imputation (and the program IMPUTE in particular), we recommend Marchini & Howie’s 2010 Nature Reviews Genetics article. However, the following figure provides an intuitive understanding of the process.
Continue reading ‘Learning more from your 23andMe results with Imputation’
Following the Genomes Unzipped post entitled “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing”, we received a request to reply from Jim Wilson. Jim Wilson is the chief scientist of BritainsDNA. He is not the one who gave the BBC interview that prompted the Genomes Unzipped post but he is a key contributor to the science behind BritainsDNA. We are keen to tell both sides of this story and this post is an opportunity for BritainsDNA to state their arguments and motivation. -VP
I saw Vincent Plagnol’s post here on Genomes Unzipped about the promotion of genetic ancestry testing and felt compelled to respond. While I did not give the interview that was the subject of the post, I am the chief scientist at BritainsDNA and I feel that the post was biased in presenting only one side of the story and thus misrepresenting the situation. Perhaps I can offer another perspective for readers.
Continue reading ‘Response to “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing”’
Jimmy Cheng-Ho Lin, MD, PhD, MHS is the Founder/President of Rare Genomics Institute, helping patients with rare diseases design, source, and fund personalized genomics projects. He is also on the faculty in the Pathology and Genetics Departments at the Washington University in St. Louis, as part of the Genomics and Pathology Services. Prior to this, he completed his training with Bert Vogelstein and Victor Veculescu at Johns Hopkins and Mark Gerstein at Yale, and led the computational analysis of some of the first exome sequencing projects in any disease, including breast, colorectal, glioblastoma, and pancreatic cancers.
At Rare Genomics Institute (RGI), we have a dream: that one day any parent or community can help access and fund the latest technology for their child with any disease. While nonprofits and foundations exist for many diseases, the vast majority of the 7,000 rare diseases do not have the scientific and philanthropic infrastructure to help. Many parents fight heroically on behalf of their children, and some of them have even become the driving force for research. At RGI, we are inspired by such parents and feel that if we can help provide the right tools and partnerships, extraordinary things can be achieved.
We start by helping parents connect with the right researchers and clinicians. Then, we provide mechanisms for them to fundraise. Finally, we try to guide them through the science that hopefully result in a better life for their child or for future children. Throughout the whole process, we try to educate, support, and walk alongside families undergoing this long journey.
Continue reading ‘Guest Post: Jimmy Lin on community-funded rare disease genomics’
Gholson Lyon is a physician-scientist currently working at the Utah Foundation for Biomedical Research and the Center for Applied Genomics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He will be starting as an assistant professor in human genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory next month. I asked him to write this guest post to provide some personal context to his thought-provoking commentary in Nature (subscription required) on returning genetic findings to research subjects. [DM]
Photo of Max, who died aged four months from Ogden syndrome. Posted with permission from his family.
I have just published in Nature a commentary discussing the need to bring exome and genome sequencing into the clinical arena, so that these data are generated with the same rigorous clinical standards as for any other clinical test. This way, we can then easily return at least medically actionable results to research participants. In this day and age of consumer and patient empowerment, I can also see eventually returning all data, including the raw data, to any interested participants, as this can then promote crowd-sourcing for data analysis, with research participants controlling and promoting the relative privacy of and analysis of their own data.
As I described in my commentary, my thinking on this matter was prompted mainly by Max (see picture) and his family. The obituary for Max can be found here, and that of his cousin, Sutter, here. We described their condition here, and we named this new disease Ogden Syndrome in honor of where the first family lives. I am now trying to think about and discuss the human aspects of and lessons from this story. My thinking has also been influenced somewhat by the late James Neel, who wrote a very thought-provoking book called Physician to the Gene Pool.
To me, it was deeply disconcerting that I could not officially return any results to this family (or to another family in a different project discussed here) even when the papers describing the genetic basis of their disease were published, as this was considered “research” and was not performed in a clinically appropriate (CLIA-certified) manner. This was all the more painful when one of the sisters in the Ogden family became pregnant and asked me what I knew. I cannot predict whether it would have helped or hurt this woman to learn during her pregnancy that she was indeed a carrier of the mutation, with the associated 50% risk of her baby boy having the disease. I also do not know if she would have undergone any genetic testing via amniocentesis of the fetus prior to birth (with the associated ~1% risk of miscarriage from the procedure), nor do I know what decisions she might have made prior to the birth even if she had undergone such testing. All in all, it was certainly an ethical and moral dilemma for me not to be able to return the research result to her, given that the results were not obtained in a CLIA-certified manner. It is still an issue, as there are even now financial and systematic barriers for getting all women in the family tested with a CLIA-certified gene test for NAA10 (which was developed over a six month period by ARUP Laboratories). It would have been so much better if we had just done the entire sequencing up front in a CLIA-certified manner.
Continue reading ‘Guest post: Time to bring human genome sequencing into the clinic’
Dr Anna Middleton is an Ethics Researcher and Registered Genetic Counsellor, based at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. She leads the ethics component of the Deciphering Developmental Disorders study, a collaborative project involving WTSI and the 23 National Health Service Regional Clinical Genetics Services in the UK. This project involves searching for the genetic cause of developmental disorders, using array-CGH, SNP genotyping and exome sequencing, in ~12,000 children in the UK who currently have no genetic diagnosis.
One of the issues raised by this, and many other research projects, is what should happen to ‘incidental’ findings, i.e. potentially interesting results from genomic analyses that are not directly related to the condition under study. Here Anna discusses the research she is conducting on this topic as part of the DDD study, and provides a link to the DDD Genomethics survey where you can share your own views (I should also disclose here that both Caroline and I also work on the DDD study).[KIM]
Whole genome studies have the ability to produce enormous volumes of valuable data for individuals who take part in research. However, as a consequence of analysing all 20,000+ genes, whole genome studies unavoidably involve the discovery of health related information that may have actual clinical significance for the research participant. Some of this will be considered a ‘pertinent finding’, i.e. directly related to the phenotype under study (e.g. the child’s developmental disorder); some of this will be considered an ‘incidental or secondary finding’ in that it is not directly linked to the phenotype under study or the research question that the genomic researchers are trying to answer.
Continue reading ‘Ethics and Genomic Research: ‘Genomethics’’
This is a guest post by Jeffrey Rosenfeld. Jeff is a next-generation sequencing advisor in the High Performance and Research Computing group at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, working on a variety of human and microbial genetics projects. He is also a Visiting Scientist at the American Museum of Natural History where he focuses on whole-genome phylogenetics. He was trained at the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
As human geneticists, it is all too easy to ignore papers published about non-human organisms – especially when those organisms are plants. After all, how much can the analysis of (say) Arabidopsis genome diversity possibly assist in my quest to better understand the human genome and determine which genes cause disease? Quite a bit, as it happens: a fascinating recent paper in Nature demonstrates a number of lessons that we can learn from our distant green relatives.
By exploiting the small genome size of Arabidopsis (~120 million bases, compared to the relatively gargantuan 3 billion bases of Homo sapiens), researchers were able to perform complete genome sequencing and transcriptome profiling in 18 different ecotypes of the plant (similar to what we would call strains of an animal).
In a normal genome re-sequencing experiment, the procedure is to obtain DNA from an individual, sequence the DNA, align it to a reference sequence and then to call variants (i.e. differences from the reference). This approach is used by the 1000 Genomes Project and basically all of the hundreds of disease-focused human sequencing projects currently underway around the world. This approach allows researchers to relatively easily identify single-base substitution (SNP) and small insertion/deletion (indel) differences between genomes. However, the amount of variability that can be identified is restricted by the use of a reference: regions where there is extreme divergence between the reference and sample genomes are often badly called, and more complex variants (e.g. large, recurrent rearrangements of DNA) can be missed. Additionally, and crucially, sequences that are not present in the reference genome will be completely missed by this approach.
Continue reading ‘Going green: lessons from plant genomics for human sequencing studies’