College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

The Secrets in Your Genome

November 13, 2007

A personal DNA sequence
is not yet practically useful.

But it could be, argues Prof. Steven Brenner, if we had the right resources.

Brenner calls for the establishment of "a public knowledgebase of human genetic variation and its effect, culled from databases, diagnostic laboratories, and the scientific literature."

Brenner's recent commentary on this topic appeared in Nature, and can be found here.

Alan Boyle, science editor, recently discussed Brenner's ideas in Boyle's own blog, Cosmic Log.

Writes Boyle:

Steven Brenner, a computational biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, wonders why more isn't being done with personal genomes.

"If the genome is so revealing, why was so little revealed?" he asks in a commentary written for Nature.

To encourage future revelations, Brenner is calling for the establishment of a Genome Commons - "a public knowledgebase of human genetic variation and its effect, culled from databases, diagnostic laboratories, and the scientific literature."

"It would build upon the HapMap information," Brenner told me today during a phone call from Italy, where he's attending a conference. "The Genome Commons would be more focused on the interpretation of that genetic variation in an individual."

The data contributed to the Commons would not contain information that could identify specific individuals, and thus would not raise privacy concerns, he said. "It wouldn't actually have anyone's individual genome in it, it would have only the summary results," he said.

A diagnostician would work with you on a confidential basis, check your DNA profile against the database using a software "navigator" - and then come back with a treatment plan tailored to your genes. Some researchers are already working on such an approach, using a sampling of genomic data rather than the full genome.

This week's issue of Nature traces a case study involving Hugh Rienhoff, a clinical geneticist whose daughter has an undetermined congenital syndrome. Rienhoff has been chronicling his genetic search for a cure - or at least a diagnosis - on a Web site called

"I post this information with the hope that I might find others with similar problems, that someone might provide a key insight, and that others - physicians, scientists, patients and parents - might find inspiration to do the same for their own conundrums," Rienhoff writes.

Can HapMap - and the Genome Commons, if it's created - help Rienhoff's daughter and millions of others? Brenner thinks so: "The challenges of building a Genome Commons and navigator are not trivial, but this resource could affect us all personally," he writes.

Brenner plans to keep blogging on the idea on the Genome Commons Web site. And I'd like to hear your comments as well. Please contribute your thoughts on the personal genome and the quest for cures below.


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