Strawberries

GeneThere are a lot of subjects I do not know much about. One of them is genomics. I moderated a panel at a technology conference a few years ago that included three PhDs in bioinformatics and I learned enough to confirm how little I knew. I asked the three experts what book would enlighten me. They unanimously recommended Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley. After reading the book I was convinced that the amount I did not know was orders of magnitude greater than I had thought. One thing I do know is that genomics is going to have a very major impact on healthcare in the years ahead — more like months than decades.

An early indicator of what lies ahead might be what is going on with fruits and vegetables. Elizabeth Weise, Science writer at USA Today, just did a nice summary of the latest genomic breakthrough with strawberries. Her story, Woodland strawberry genome sequenced, is about the genome of the woodland strawberry, a “cousin” to today’s cultivated strawberry, that has now been sequenced by an international research consortium.

The strawberry is the second smallest plant genome to be sequenced, with just 14 chromosomes. What sequencing means in layman terms is that the researchers have been able to construct a “parts list” of the strawberry. (See the actual gene mapping in Nature Genetics if you are curious about the details). Weise reports that as a result of the sequencing, breeders may be able to create tastier and hardier varieties of the popular berry as well as for other crops in its family, including almonds, apples, peaches, cherries and raspberries. The researchers are optimistic that they will also find new “parts” that will provide resistance to strawberry wilt, a common, soil-borne pathogen that spoils cultivated strawberries.

The consequences for humans are mind boggling. Gene hunters are finding more genes and linking them to diseases and predispositions to diseases. The next phase will be developing methods of prevention and cures. We may see more breakthroughs in the next ten years than we have seen in the last 100 years. If you want to get an idea of the scope of the human genome project, I recommend reading Medical and Societal Consequences of the Human Genome Project by Francis S. Collins.