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Impact of Genomics and Bioinformatics on Biotechnology

Mittur N. Jagadish
Monsanto Research Center, 
Malleswaram, Bangalore 560003 Karnataka

The major societal problems include labour intensive agriculture, crop losses due to various factors, malnutrition, prevalence of infectious diseases due to pathogens, and diseases due to biochemical and physiological disorders. When coupled with the teeming population and persistent degradation of the environment, these problems become truly magnified to an enormous complexity. 

The discovery of genes as the basic units of inheritance and DNA as the macromolecule carrying genes in all living organisms, with just a few exceptions, has given a tremendous boost for biotechnology to grow and aid the society, in its modern form (mediated by DNA, RNA and Protein) as a highly research intensive and application sector. About five to ten years ago, the focus of agricultural and biomedical research had been generally on a single isolated gene / enzyme / protein / event and many of these efforts led to successful discovery of diagnostic and corrective measures against a few of the challenges mentioned above. However, in recent times, owing to the continuous spectacular developments in the areas of macromolecular chemistry, macromolecule sequencing machines and computational tools to analyze biological data, the focus has shifted from single to multiple gene / protein / enzyme / events to assist rapid discovery of remedies for the prevailing problems. 

The genome and the deduced protein sequence for a large number of organisms are now available for functional analysis and confirmation at the biochemical pathway or physiological process levels, which enables understanding of the mechanisms of trait development in crops or the occurrence of diseases in many living systems. The DNA information provided is in long strings of four-lettered sequences organized into distinct open reading frames (ORFs) associated with additional sequences for governing these ORFs. The ORFs representing all the genes constitute the genetic make-up of that organism. The ORFs translate into twenty-lettered amino acid sequences, which forms the basic framework to determine the functional properties. While many of the translated sequences from ORFs have known functions assigned to them, there are many that are unknown, awaiting exciting discoveries which in turn may lead to identification of new biological functions of economical and clinical significance. A simultaneous genome-wide analysis of gene expression ("Transcription Profiling" or "Transcriptomics") has been possible by the development of "DNA chip" or the "Micro array" technology. Likewise, a simultaneous genome-wide analysis of the pattern of metabolite synthesis ("Metabolic Profiling" or "Metabolomics") in a living system provides an insight towards understanding the functioning of biochemical pathways at a given point in time. These technologies are high throughput methods developed for understanding at the organism level, the behavioral pattern ("Phenotypic Expression" or "Phenomics") of microbes and higher eukaryotes (including plants and animals) under various environmental conditions. 

To help analyze the enormous amount of biological data that gets generated from sequencing projects, transcription and metabolic profiling experiments, Bioinformatics provides software tools for construction of complete catalogues of the ORFs, gene products, functional properties, interaction amongst the gene products, elucidation of pathways, comparison of genomes, similarity searches, and insights towards genetic modification of economically important biological systems to result in new products and new therapies of economical and clinical significance respectively. The following URLs http://gnn.tigr.org/main.shtml and http://www.sanger.ac.uk/ can be used to access genomics relevant information.

Many beneficial as well as harmful traits involve multiple genes, proteins, biochemical pathways and physiological processes. With this in view, the inference of results generated from high throughput analysis at the whole genome level using the tools of bioinformatics would certainly have a tremendous impact on research efforts towards finding solutions for the societal challenges, from the perspective of biotechnology.