Genetic Future

First Arab genome sequenced

This story doesn’t seem to have got much press – understandably, since the media is getting sick of “first” genomes, and there’s very little useful information available in the press releases – but a collaborative effort between Saudi Biosciences, the Beijing Genomics Institute and bioinformatics provider CLCbio has announced the sequencing of the first Arab genome.

We’re talking standard genomics-by-press-release here: there’s no information about the nature of the sample, and no release of actual data. The one nugget of information in the press release is that the genome was sequenced using Illumina’s Genome Analyzer platform, a very high-throughput short-read technology that is also being used extensively for the 1000 Genomes Project.

This is apparently the first of 100 genomes to be sequenced by the partnership, as part of a larger human genomics initiative involving “major institutes in Middle East”.

The project is interesting for three main reasons. The first is that Middle Eastern populations represent an extremely attractive target for human geneticists: there is both a high level of genetic diversity (due to the location of the Middle East at the nexus of Africa, Europe and Asia) and a disproportionately high level of genetic disease, at least partly due to the prevalence of first cousin marriages. The levels of genetic disease will provide plenty of fodder for rare disease gene hunters, and the genetic diversity may help to narrow down causative variants for some common diseases.

The second source of interest is the increasing engagement of the Middle East in large-scale human genetics. A few months ago I spoke at length to a young American currently working in a new genomics facility in a Middle Eastern country (which I won’t name, to maintain anonymity). The upshot of that conversation was that several countries in the region, all too aware that they have only a decade or so of easy money left in their dwindling oil reserves, are beginning to sink their wealth into alternative industries to build capacity early. One such industry that has been widely commented on is tourism (Dubai’s status as a tourist Mecca is now well-known), but I wasn’t aware that there have also been very large sums of money invested in building and staffing several world-class genomics facilities. The idea is presumably to create critical mass for the emergence of a biomedical hub, following in Singapore’s footsteps.

The third interesting point is – well, I’ll let the press release do the talking:

His Royal Highness Prince Ahmad bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Head of the Board of Directors at Saudi Biosciences, said “This marks the first milestone in our goal to pioneer the personalized medicine era in the Arab world.”

There can’t be too many genomics facilities with royalty at their helm. (No, Craig, thinking that you’re royalty doesn’t count. Sorry.)

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