I Just Went to a Lecture at the World’s Premier Genomics Institute. Here’s What I Learned.

This little guy has superpowers.

I just attended a fascinating talk from the Broad Institute at MIT on how the genomes of other species relate to our DNA as humans. Drs. Elinor Karlsson and Diane Genereux of the Broad Institute are intensively studying other mammals, working to uncover the genetic basis of their superpowers.

For example, the thirteen lined ground squirrel can hibernate, the teeth of the North American beaver include iron and are thus nearly indestructible, and the Jamaican fruit bat can eat all the sweets it wants without diabetes. What if we humans could do those things?

Any such applications are a long ways away, if ever, but learning about these incredible animals was definitely interesting.

Karlsson and her colleagues have sequenced the genomes of 240 species. Some spots on those genomes change little if at all, indicating they probably have a crucial function that can’t be changed. Others change faster than the normal rate of mutations, indicating a survival advantage to mutations in that area.

The researchers also noted that in the 100 million years since all mammals shared a common ancestor, every possible genetic mutation has been tried, given the base rate of random mutations. So, if we don’t see a mutation in living mammals, it probably was tried and failed. Dr. Karlsson likened this to nature’s clinical trial, an excellent analogy.

This genomic research is likely to have more and more applications because the cost of sequencing a human genome has dropped from $2.7 billion for the first one to under $1,000 now. The Broad Institute sequences one every 10 minutes.

This is an explosion of data similar to the development of the internet. It took years, but companies like Google came along and harnessed that data, with profound effects on society. I anticipate enormous advances will come from this research in the future.

If you want to watch the lecture in its entirety, it should be up on the Broad’s YouTube channel soon. And to register for future lectures like this, check out the Science for All Seasons website here.

Thanks to Drs. Karlsson and Genereux, moderator Tom Ulrich, and the Broad Institute for this awesome talk!

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