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Healthcare to Agriculture: How Genome Revolution Could Be Gamechanger

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One of the biggest developments in science has been the precise deciphering of the entire human DNA sequence, our genome. The mapping of the DNA blueprint has led to accelerated developments globally in the field of genomics, which deals with the study of all the genes of an organism, their interaction with one another, and their environment.

To put it simply, all living organisms possess a genome that serves as an instruction manual for the growth and sustenance of the organism. By sequencing the genome of a person, we can delve into the nuances of the person's genetic identity and gain better insights into several aspects of the person's health conditions, helping empower them to make informed health choices. Further, genome sequencing has brought forth paradigm shifts in various associated fields such as human biology, medicine, agriculture, precision diagnostics, and pharmaceuticals.

Advances in genome sequencing have led to remarkable improvements in the way diseases are diagnosed, treated, and prevented through surveillance using innovative strategies. During these unprecedented times of a prolonged pandemic, genome sequencing has helped in gaining a better understanding of the biology and evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 that causes coronavirus. The early sequencing of the virus' RNA and sharing of its genetic data enabled in development of rapid diagnostics and vaccines.

A Faster Way to Better Treatment

Due to rapid developments that have led to increased speed, reduced costs, and improved accuracy of genome sequencing, there have been remarkable achievements made in both precision diagnostics and personalized medicines based on the genetic profiles of patients. Prior to the completion of the Human Genome Project, common complex diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, psychiatric disorders, Alzheimer's, and autoimmune diseases, were treated under a standardized plan, which was not always entirely effective or efficient for all patients.

Using the Crispr/Cas9 genetic scissors, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants, and microorganisms with extremely high precision. (Photo: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

The complete sequencing of the human genome at the population scale showed us that we have millions of genetic variants, which is a key factor in why people respond differently to standardized treatment plans. Consequently, genome-wide association studies have enabled us to tailor the diagnostics and treatment of these diseases for individuals in the form of personalized medicine.

These revolutionizing developments in personalized medicine have led to the advent of a novel field -- pharmacogenomics, which combines the field of pharmacology, i.e. the science of drugs and genomics or the study of genes and their functions. Pharmacogenomics, though a relatively new field, has made its mark by contributing to the development of accurate, effective, and safe medications at dosages that are relevant to the patient's genetic predisposition.

Grounds for Technological Advancement

It is crucial to note that the cost of genome sequencing has become affordable due to increased investments and diverse innovations that are available for clinical and commercial applications. Our understating of the DNA sequence and its relevance to desired traits in crops, livestock, and various linkages with human health can be envisioned to result in cutting-edge scientific and technological advancements.

It is considered valuable to chronicle how genome sequencing has led to another ground-breaking development in the form of genome editing technology, and this serves as the cornerstone for futuristic innovations in the field of genetics and genomics. Genome/gene-editing technologies, especially using CRISPR-based tools, have enabled precision science with multi-fold application opportunities in healthcare and agriculture. For instance, gene editing done using CRISPR/Cas9, which can be explained as an adaptive version of the bacterial defense mechanism, enables us to edit, cut, and replace genes more efficiently than previous gene-editing tools.

In the present global context, it is increasingly important to recognize the critical impacts of climate change and the urgent need to increase nutrient-rich, sustainable food crop production in India. Targeted gene editing can allow us to improve key food crops by making them resistant to pests, droughts, and additionally enhancing their nutrient qualities. Gene-edited food crops could greatly help in increasing food production and improving crop varieties and thereby help achieve nutrition security for the country. This, obviously, need to be adopted under rigorous regulatory procedures to avoid any adverse developments that may not be beneficial to society.

Larger Concerns

Gene editing in healthcare should be advocated only to address the human suffering from diseases and should be restricted to somatic cell (non-reproductive cell) gene editing. For example, such endeavors could be very beneficial in developing treatments for cancer, sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, blood disorders, and other such debilitating diseases.

Germ cell (reproductive cell) gene editing should not be pursued as the DNA changes made become inheritable by future generations. Such irreversible DNA editing of germ cells would greatly undermine the value of the technology while raising ethical and philosophical questions in the foray of scientific advancements.

India's Advent into Genomics

India has a robust civil society with socially engaging groups and communities who have actively participated in deliberations and discussions around genetic editing, especially in agriculture. It is found that gene editing as technology seems easily acceptable for the treatment of diseases and healthcare but finds adverse opinions in the field of agriculture. In this predicament, it is crucial to evaluate the technology on a case-by-case basis, and one should proceed with caution.

Over the years, India has developed rigorous regulatory policies to oversee research and applications done in the field of genomics and genetics. Following regulatory policies and ethical protocols in research is a gold standard. It is also pertinent for scientists and researchers to consider the vulnerable and precarious nature of the lifeworlds of communities in India, for whose benefit many of the scientific solution-based research programs in the field of genomics and genetics are conceived and executed.

It is essential for researchers to be socially conscious, value community consensus, and integrate an inter-disciplinary approach to gain societal impacts through scientific advancements. Such socially inclusive processes of deliberations with transparent scientific communication in turn would render any advancements in genome sequencing and editing to be ethically bound, robust in innovations, and conceivably achieve optimum fruition in solving complex societal challenges.

Considering the power and potential impact of modern genetic, genomic, and gene editing technologies, we must not miss out on their full applications to solve our societal problems.

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Schedule29 Jan 2022
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