The Union Govt. has given clearance to an ambitious gene-mapping project, estimated to be worth Rs 238 crore. The project is said to be among the most significant of its kind in the world because of its scale and the diversity it would bring to genetic studies.
Genome India Project
- The Genome India Project has been described by those involved as the “first scratching of the surface of the vast genetic diversity of India”.
- It involves over 20 scientists from institutions including the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru and a few IITs.
- It is inspired by the Human Genome Project (HGP 1990-2003) an international programme that led to the decoding of the entire human genome.
About Human Genome Project
- One of the most comprehensive genome mapping projects in the world is the Human Genome Project (HGP), which began in 1990 and reached completion in 2003.
- The international project, which was coordinated by the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Energy, was undertaken with the aim of sequencing the human genome and identifying the genes that contain it.
- The project was able to identify the locations of many human genes and provide information about their structure and organisation.
What is a Genome?
- Every organism’s genetic code is contained in its Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid (DNA), the building blocks of life.
- The discovery that DNA is structured as a “double helix” by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, started the quest for understanding how genes dictate life, its traits, and what causes diseases.
- A genome is all the genetic matter in an organism. It is defined as “an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes.
- Each genome contains all of the information needed to build and maintain that organism.
- In humans, a copy of the entire genome contains more than 3 billion DNA base pairs.
- Each pair consists of 23 pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46 chromosomes, which means that for 23 pairs of chromosomes in each cell, there are roughly 20,500 genes located on them.
What does genome-mapping tell us?
- Some of the genes are lined up in a row on each chromosome, while others are lined up quite close to one another and this arrangement might affect the way they are inherited.
- For example, if the genes are placed sufficiently close together, there is a probability that they get inherited as a pair.
- Genome mapping, therefore, essentially means figuring out the location of a specific gene on a particular region of the chromosome and also determining the location of and relative distances between other genes on that chromosome.
What is the significance of GIP?
- HGP has a major diversity problem as most genomes (over 95%) mapped under HGP have been sourced from urban middle-class white people.
- Thus, HGP should not really be seen as representative of the human genome.
In this context, the GIP aims to vastly add to the available information on the human species and advance the cause, both because of the scale of the Indian population and the diversity here. This diversity can be depicted by:
Horizontal Diversity: The Indian subcontinent has been the site of huge migrations, where the first migrations were from Africa. Also, there have been periodic migrations by various populations from all around the world, making this a very special case of almost all races and types intermingling genetically.
Vertical Diversity: There has been endogamy or inter-marriage practised among distinct groups, resulting in some diseases passed on strictly within some groups and some other traits inherited by just some groups. Studying and understanding both diversities would provide the bedrock of personalised healthcare for a very large group of persons on the planet.
- Significantly, genome mapping enables scientists to gather evidence if a disease transmitted from the parent to the child is linked to one or more genes.
- Furthermore, mapping also helps in determining the particular chromosome which contains that gene and the location of that gene in the chromosome.
- Genome maps have been used to find out genes that are responsible for relatively rare, single-gene inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Duchene muscular dystrophy.
- Genetic maps may also point out scientists to the genes that play a role in more common disorders and diseases such as asthma, cancer and heart disease among others.
- Researchers from several international institutions mapped the handful of genes whose mutation causes several different kinds of cancers.
Fear of Scientific Racism
- The question of heredity and racial purity has obsessed civilisations, and more scientific studies of genes and classifying them could reinforce stereotypes and allow for politics and history to acquire a racial twist.
- The work on cranial volume measurements of the physician Samuel Morton (regarded in America as the father of scientific racism) justified slavery before the US Civil War.
- In India, a nation divided by identity politics, scientific work in mapping genetic groups may further strengthen the divisions in the society based on the prevalent notion of race.
Data & Storage
- After collection of the sample, the anonymity of the data and questions of its possible use and misuse would need to be addressed.
- India is yet to pass a Data Privacy Bill with adequate safeguards and launching the GIP before the privacy question is settled could give rise to another set of problems.
- In a project that aims only to create a database of genetic information poses a risk of doctors privately performing gene modification.
- Selective breeding or Eugenics has always been controversial for long, as recently a Shenzhen-based scientist, created the world’s first gene-edited babies, has been sentenced to three years in prison.
A word of Caution
- Mapping the genetic diversity of India would further scientific understanding of evolution both from a biological (intra- and inter-species interaction, species-ecology interactions, etc) and sociological (migration patterns, rituals, etc) point of view.
- Caution must be exercised that the effort to map India’s genetic diversity doesn’t devolve into the politically-motivated and discriminatory effort to root indogeneity in misguided notions of biological essentialism.
- The budget for FY21 spoke of expanding genome mapping to agriculture—a greater understanding of the genetic basis for susceptibility to diseases like blights, rusts, etc, would aid genetic engineering efforts to reduce chemical dependence in agriculture.
- Nor would healthcare be the only field to which the benefits of the project would accrue.
- To gain fully from the genomics revolution, India needs to collect information about the genetics of its population and train manpower capable of interpreting it.
- The information that is needed has to come from a large and sustained collection of data — fully sequenced individual genomes along with medical histories for the individuals who volunteer for this effort.
- Genome India Project provides an opportunity for India to make leap and bounds progress in the fields of biotechnology, agriculture and healthcare.
- Thus, it should be carried with maximum speed and maximum caution.