Into the future!
[b]Theory of probability doesn’t seem abstract when it comes to genetics[/b]It seems that some of us are more likely to break bones when we fall, while others escape with minor bruising and a fright. The recently accredited Centre for DNA Biotechnology at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Genetics and Cytology is searching for answers to such questions. Soon, it will begin to issue genetic passports to people and … aurochs. We’ll be able to find out which inherited diseases we’re susceptible to, while animal breeding will be enhanced from decoding genetic make-up. The Centre has begun to admit applications for human DNA tests and investigations will then begin.
It seems that some of us are more likely to break bones when we fall, while others escape with minor bruising and a fright. The recently accredited Centre for DNA Biotechnology at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Genetics and Cytology is searching for answers to such questions. Soon, it will begin to issue genetic passports to people and … aurochs. We’ll be able to find out which inherited diseases we’re susceptible to, while animal breeding will be enhanced from decoding genetic make-up. The Centre has begun to admit applications for human DNA tests and investigations will then begin.
“Should I be wary of contracting diabetes, since my grandfather suffers from it?” I ask Prof. Irma Mosse, Doctor of Biological Sciences and Head of Human Genetics at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Genetics and Cytology. “Although this disease can be inherited or acquired, we shouldn’t forget our genes. If you are aware of a predisposition, you’ll be cautious enough not to over indulge in sweet foods,” Ms. Mosse assures me.
Our tendency to contract disease, even colds and infections, is genetically predetermined to some extent. The strength of our bones and calcium content is also somewhat ‘programmed’, meaning that some of us are more likely to be injured than others. Chekhov once wrote: ‘if a rifle hangs on the wall in the first act, it’ll undoubtedly shoot in the last act’. Having a genetic passport will make us aware of our weaknesses, allowing us to prevent them becoming a true problem.
The Centre for DNA Biotechnology at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Genetics and Cytology has concentrated on 30 genes which appear to govern the formation of certain diseases, when coupled with environment. Cancer and other 100 percent inherited diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) are being excluded. In particular, cardiovascular diseases are in focus, since heart attacks are a common cause of death which can be avoided by living a healthy lifestyle: good diet, exercise and no smoking.
“When people are told that smoking is harmful, they sometimes argue that their first cousin once removed used to drink, smoke and was overweight but lived to a great age. It’s likely that he didn’t have genes which disposed him towards coronary disease, heart attack or brain haemorrhage.”
Osteoporosis and haemochromatosis (abnormal accumulation of iron) are also registered on the list. Moreover, sensitivity to toxins can be tested, so that such people can avoid working in harmful environments (such as chemical factories). Around 45 percent of people have trouble eliminating such toxins from their body. Similarly, those with potential hearing problems should not work in noisy environments. It’s vital that those who want to go mountaineering or ballooning test their tolerance for lack of oxygen. Biathletes, training at high altitudes, are currently undergoing such tests. DNA-tests are especially vital for athletes, with hockey and football players often suffering from deep vein thrombosis. Boxers complain of brain injures even at the slightest stroke. If our genes tell us we are prone to sudden death from being hit by a hockey puck or pushed to the ground, it gives us the chance to avoid dangerous situations. The DNA Biotechnology Centre is proposing that social and medical employees test their tolerance to the AIDS virus, since they come into contact with potential and diagnosed sufferers. Each case will be determined individually, with research of each gene costing $10-20.
Even more ambitious plans exist — such as the, as yet, little researched area of arterial thromboses. The influence of nano-particles on our body’s genetic make-up is to be studied, discovering if inflammation or poisoning are possible side-effects. Scientists need only time.
Aurochs’, pigs’ and horses’ genetic make-up is also to become clearer. According to international requirements and regulation from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, offspring sired from bulls purchased from abroad are to have their DNA confirmed. I was demonstrated a DNA-passport of one bull denoting ‘father’, ‘mother’ and ‘son’ — disassembled in 11 genes.
“Of course, it’s natural that, in purchasing an expensive breeding animal, farmers want to be sure of its pedigree; this is vital for the selection process. A DNA-passport will prove an animal to be the direct descendant of its parents. Moreover, we need to reveal any hidden mutations, which can be identified on occasion,” explains Maria Mikhailova, the Institute’s Deputy Director for Science and Innovation, Candidate of Biological Sciences and Head of Genetics Laboratory. “We would remove animals with defective genes liable to immunodeficiency; carriers barely live 5-6 months. Fortunately, our stud bull doesn’t have this mutation.”
The service is not cheap (costing Br 250,000 for a ‘family’) but is popular among farmers and breeding enterprises from Gomel, Minsk, Brest and Vitebsk. Many have been approaching the DNA Biotech-nology Centre, asking scientists to determine the virus causing ‘blue-ear pig disease’. They are studying its origin, so that a vaccine can be created. Such research can help improve meat and milk quality at reduced cost. In fact, the texture and taste of meat are known to be affected by animals’ ‘happiness’. Pigs subjected to stress produce meat which is tougher and more watery, since nervous animals are unable to metabolise calcium, leading to muscle spasms.
Scientists plan to use the same scheme to strengthen aurochs’ health. The population was restored after WWII from just 12 animals and now boasts over 800 aurochs, spread over 11 micro-populations (the Belovezhskaya Pushcha is home to the largest). Because of inter-breeding, they often fall ill and adapt poorly to new conditions. The DNA Biotechnology Centre will aim to prevent their extinction by selecting pairs most distant from each other genetically. Additionally, the Centre will combat poachers by identifying European roe deer and wild boar by blood left on cars. Of course, legal hunting brings good revenue for the country and, by studying the population of European red deer, scientists plan to breed them to enhance their horns — the major attraction. A single drop of blood or saliva is enough to conduct research, although the process is far from simple.
Ranges and complexes of genes, rather than a single gene, are studied, enabling us to receive more exact data. Using special chips — compact reagent kits — foreign scientists can conduct molecular analysis of several hundred genes. However, this is very expensive — akin to paying triple the price for a meal at a restaurant rather than preparing it at home. Belarusian scientists know which ingredients are needed and in which proportions and are now considering launching their own chips, enabling hundreds of analyses to be made within a fortnight.
By Natalia Pisareva