Now to write the manual

July 14, 2000

Next week, biologists will meet to map out future instalments in the book of life, writes Keith Gull.

Three thousand biologists from around the world will meet in Birmingham next week at the 18th International Congress of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to discuss an agenda for biology in the forthcoming decades.

In 1996, when we started planning this congress, I suggested the title of "Beyond the Genome". We envisaged that by 2000 the various genome projects would have made good progress. The congress would be focused on the challenge of ensuring that this knowledge would be amplified into an understanding of the fundamental principles and mechanisms lying at the heart of the biological sciences.

Such has been the skill and speed of the sequencing consortia, however, that the congress now meets in mid-2000 with the complete genome information available for yeast, a worm, the fruit fly and dozens of bacteria. And only a few weeks ago we saw the astonishing announcement of the working draft of the human genome itself.

Much attention has been focused on the implications of genome information in health care, disease, agriculture and the environment. These insights into the full catalogue and sequence of all of the genes in an organism's genome are a remarkable milestone in the understanding of how living organisms develop, reproduce, interact and evolve.

The scientific endeavour that lies beyond the genome seeks to explain how the genes operate and how the proteins that they encode interact and build the complex infrastructure of life forms - including the human body.

In essence, genome information is rather like discovering a well-preserved Meccano set in one's loft, but with the illustrated information booklet missing. Nuts, bolts, plates and gear wheels of all sizes, shapes and colours are in the box. The difficulty is envisaging how the components are put together to build a toy car or crane or locomotive - intriguingly often with many of the same components. Starting on the illustrations and words for the instruction manual of life is the exciting and rather daunting task of biologists in the forthcoming decades.

There are many genome projects. While the Human Genome Project attracts most attention, it is a comparison of the genomes of diverse organisms that often lies at the heart of much basic biology. We now have the full sequence of the genes in the genomes of four of the most intensively studied laboratory organisms: yeast, the bacterium E. coli, the worm C. elegans and the fruit fly Drosophila.

Comparison of the genomes of these organisms and the human genome is likely to reveal fundamental insights as to how living organisms develop and evolve. Moreover, such comparisons and the experiments they suggest will be key to the development of new drugs.

Genome projects are under way on a host of other organisms. In my own area of interest, the Wellcome Trust is supporting the sequencing of the genomes of some of the major killers of the developing world - parasites that cause diseases such as malaria and African sleeping sickness. This information will be a major contribution to world health and is revolutionising the study of these intractable parasites. The challenge will be to translate this genome information into opportunities for new drugs and vaccines for these diseases.

Some have argued that understanding the biology that lies beyond the genome will require theories and paradigms beyond those that biologists have used so far to study the gene. Certainly this science is already demanding a new type of biologist. The post-genome biologist has to embrace advanced computing. The interdisciplinary expertise of bioinformatics and the handling of large data sets will become the norm for all biologists.

Commercial organisations have many advantages in this form of science. If UK universities are to play a part, they will have to move quickly. This interdisciplinary post-genome science challenges the still-undergraduate discipline-based, departmental organisation of many universities. Staff must have access to core equipment and technology clusters that underpin this form of biology. The current poor laboratory infrastructure and estate in even our best research universities hampers our full participation.

Finally, this post-genome science provides a stern challenge to current concepts of teaching and learning in many of our core disciplines; challenges that if not met in the UK will certainly affect both the intellectual and economic development of this country in the next decades.

Keith Gull is professor of molecular biology at the University of Manchester and chair of the 18th International Congress of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology scientific programme committee.

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