Human Genome Project – Future possibilities for India

| July 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

Human Genome Project – Future possibilities for India. P M Bhargava, The Hindu, Nov. 9, 2000.

This is the third article in the series. Links to the first two articles are:

Part 1: Human Genome Project – Importance and Objectives

Part 2: Human Genome Project – Missed opportunities for India

Future possibilities for India

IT IS sad that we never participated in the international human genome sequencing project but there is one redeeming feature. The success of this project represented a major technological advance. The science behind it had been done earlier – that is before the project started. It was for this science that several Nobel Prizes were awarded, for example to Francis Crick, Jim Watson, Fred Sanger and Walter Gilbert, to name a few.

The science in this area would now begin through analyses of the sequences of genomes, not only of humans but of other organisms as well. It was widely recognised even a decade ago that the major excitement in all of biology in the present century is going to be in the application of genome analysis in a wide range of areas such as medical and health care, agriculture and sociology.

In fact, much of biology in this century will be dominated by the results and implications of genome sequences analyses, which analyses would require the highest levels of creativity and of knowledge in a variety of fields. For example, those who are experts in both molecular biology and information technology would have an advantage over others in carrying out such analyses.

This is where we as a country have a considerable advantage over all the other parts of world. We have a 5000-year-old tradition of carrying out analyses of data. One of the reasons of whatever success we achieved in science in the past was our extraordinary capability to observe and to analyse and collate the data that was collected. Then, we are leaders in software technology.

Further, we are one of the most important biodiversity regions in the world and have the largest human biodiversity anywhere with 5000 human groups including nearly 500 tribal groups. It is, therefore, clear that we can make a mark in the field and make up partly for the lost opportunities, if we were to set up a national programme of analyses of genome sequences.

I, therefore, suggested last year (a year before the human genome sequence was announced) to the Director-General of ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi), Dr. N. K. Ganguly, that a committee should be appointed to analyse the sequences of the genomes of various organisms that had been fully sequenced, to prepare ourselves for analysing the human genome sequence which we knew would become available soon, and other genome sequences as they became available. I have already mentioned in the first part of this series of articles, the many uses of such analyses.

Following my above proposal, the Director-General, ICMR, appointed a Committee last year for analysis of genome sequences with me as the Chairman. With much difficulty and at my insistence, three meetings of the Committee have been held. I was able to persuade Dr. Abdul Kalam, Bharat Ratna and Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, to attend the last meeting of this Committee on the 4th May this year, at a very short notice.

At this meeting the following decisions were taken:

1) A National Mission will be set up for analyses of genetic sequence data, including the human genome sequence.

2) A national uniformly-formatted, database of all genome sequences, possibly with multiple mirror sites to enable easy accessibility, will be created. Genome sequences that are already available in various national and international public-domain databases will be downloaded into this national database. Sequences and information relevant to their analyses and use, will also be collected from the scientific literature.

These data and other information will be appropriately documented. Efforts will also be made to acquire, on payment, important genome sequence databases that are not available in the public-domain. Regular updations will be carried out by checking other genome databases, as also by scanning published literature. A newsletter will be published to disseminate information regarding the activities of the Mission.

(3) Appropriate steps will be taken to ensure fast uplinks to this database from major national institutions.

(4) The National Genome Sequence Database will be appropriately annotated and search-engines created.

(5) Statistical and computational methodologies and software packages will be developed to use these genome sequence data for (a) identification of disease-causing genes and mutations; (b) identification of targets for drug development; and (c) enhancing knowledge of modern biology and evolution.

(5) New DNA sequence data would be generated if required for fulfilment of the objectives of the Mission.

It was also recommended that the national genome sequence data base will be housed in a national information technology organisation which would also serve as the Genome Analysis Mission’s core centre. The Director-General of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), New Delhi, offered to house this data and to provide 5,000 sq.ft. of space for hardware and man-power required for this mission, in their establishment at Hyderabad.

The NIC also offered to provide two Mb uplinks to eight satellite centres which would engage in specific work which was defined at this meeting; these eight centres including one major software company in the country were identified, and provision was made in the Committee’s recommendations for two more such satellite centres. The entire administrative structure of the mission was worked out and its cost for five years was pegged at Rs. 50 crores.

I, as the Chairman of the Committee, also suggested that within 4-5 weeks a meeting of the Committee along with the Director- Generals of CSIR, ICAR, and ICMR, and Secretaries of DST and DBT, be convened to seek their cooperation and financial support to this mission. I suggested that this meeting should be chaired by Dr. Abdul Kalam, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India. However, this meeting has not been called till todate.

I believe the proposal made by the above-mentioned ICMR Committee has the support of the Health Minister, but in our country as anywhere else, we need specific courses of action to convert wishes and support, into a plan of action that would be workable and will lead to results. That is where we often fail.

I believe that analyses of human and other human genome is of the utmost importance to India. If, as a major scientific nation, it does not acquire leadership in this area – and that would need to be decided within this year – we can forget about obtaining leadership in any area of biology in this century, and posterity would be justified in never forgiving those who have been in positions of power and influence in this area in our country at this time.

Those of us who fought during the battle of independence and had visions about the future of our country which has had such a glorious past to build upon, now wonder whether we would be thought of by history as a country which had more opportunities than any other but which lost more opportunities than the rest of the world put together. Our only hope now is what the Health Minister and the Director-General of the ICMR may be able to do in this area.

Pushpa M. Bhargava
Former Director,
Centre for Cellular and Molecular
Biology, Hyderabad

This is the third and last in a three-part series. The first and second articles appeared on October 26 and November 2 respectively.


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Human Genome Project – Future possibilities for India. P M Bhargava, The Hindu, Nov. 9, 2000.

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