ROANOKE, Feb. 25, 2001 - A few years ago, Virginia Tech professor Dennis Dean was researching the genetic properties of bacteria found in soil when he received a surprising call from several scientists studying the human genetic code. Turns out, the gene Dean was focusing on, which helps the bacteria convert iron into a usable form, is also found in humans and many other organisms.
By "monkeying" with the gene, Dean and other researchers were able to replicate in the bacteria problems suffered by humans with certain iron-metabolizing diseases. Although he had started out concentrating only on soil bacteria, Dean inadvertently had helped shed light on human health problems.
"The advantage of the human genome sequencing and all of the other genome sequencing is it really underscores the universality of life processes," said Dean, associate director of Tech's Fralin Biotechnology Center.
While few Tech faculty were directly involved in deciphering the human genetic code, scientists and professors on the Blacksburg campus are helping with human genome research in a variety of other ways. And the unveiling of the human genome two weeks ago offers Tech faculty plenty of new material to incorporate into their own projects and lectures.
Considered one of the most important scientific achievements in recent decades, the human genome project essentially lays out the genetic blueprint of what it takes to build and run the human body. The plan now is to "read" the genome to root out genes that cause disease, figure out how and why those diseases happen and hopefully develop gene-based therapeutic drugs and treatments that target the disorders.
Tech created the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute to provide scientists with the computers and technology to convert the raw, mind-numbing data of the genetic code into something that makes sense. Or, as the institute's Bruno Sobral put it, to learn how to create buildings from blueprints.
"Information management is a very critical component of making this genetic information useful," said Sobral, director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.
In December, Sobral was part of scientific project that generated far less excitement than the human genome project but was nonetheless a significant milestone in the burgeoning world of genetic research. For the first time, an international consortium of scientists had mapped the entire genetic code of a plant. The subject - a commonly found member of the mustard plant family called arabidopsis - does not compare to the complex human body and won't likely be used in human disease treatment. But for Sobral and other researchers at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, who are helping sort through the information, deciphering the lowly mustard's genes was an important precursor to the recent publication of the humane gene sequence.
"No matter how much hoopla we hear about the human genome, we are not going to be able to do the clinical experiments on humans," Sobral said. "So we are always going to need to go to the systems where Sobral explained, we need plants to help understand ourselves.
The next much-anticipated genetic event, Sobral said, is the mapping of the mouse genome, which will enable researchers to perform experiments on lab mice that could never be carried out on humans. Celera Genomics, one of the two groups that decoded the human genome, said it has deciphered about 99 percent of the mouse genetic code.
Tech professor Stephen Boyle's studies of bacteria could also lead to healthier humans. Boyle, a professor of microbiology with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, plans to use the human genetic code in his mapping of the pathogen that causes brucellosis, which wreaks havoc in cattle herds and can cause severe sickness in humans who eat or drink products from infected cows.
Brucellosis is rarely a problem in the United States anymore, but it still causes massive herd losses and human illnesses in South America and Africa. The human code will permit Boyle to study what genes allow brucella to infect the body, which could go toward developing treatments for the disease, he said.
The decoding of the human genome also will keep busy bioethicists like Tech's Doris Zallen. Zallen, who served about 10 years on a National Institutes of Health committee advising on how to handle genetic research, said it is wonderful that the genome project was completed faster than anticipated. But she sounded the alarm about the unresolved ethical issues genetic mapping presents.
"These findings are extraordinary, and I think they call on us to deal with the problems that these papers raise," Zallen said. "This is no time to linger and sit on our hands."
One great fear in the public is that insurance companies or employers will discriminate against people found to be genetically predisposed to diseases. Referring to Virginia's eugenics movement in which thousands of people were forcibly sterilized for being epileptics or less intelligent, Zallen said Virginia and the U.S. has a sad history of discriminating against others based on shoddy genetic theories.
The genome projects also don't take into account the years between when a disease-causing gene is identified and a treatment is developed.
"It's not going to be this simple-minded, intrusive discrimination" such as forced sterilization, Zallen said. "It's going to be health insurers saying treatment is too expensive and, therefore, we shouldn't cover you."
February 24, 2001