Genetics, the study of heredity, is a recent discipline of biology. While the concept of passing on hereditary information to successive generations goes back to the 17th century, the discovery of DNA as the medium for heredity goes back to 1943, and its structure was discovered only in 1953. This period marked the beginnings of molecular biology, but it didn’t really take off until the 1970s. Advances in genetic engineering allows considerable development in the knowledge of genes, their functioning and regulation. Techniques quickly reach a high level of performance allowing the study of the human genome.
Genome sequencing involves identifying the sequence of the bases composing the DNA molecule. The complexity of this molecule and its size (over 3 billion pairs of bases in humans) require machines capable of processing millions of bits of data. In the 1990s, we assisted to the development of “large-scale” biology, with the arrival of high-performance techniques which accelerate experimental procedures as well as the acquisition and analysis of their results. This new technology makes extensive use of robots, automation and parallel processing under the control of major management and operating computing resources.
Research on the genome requires complementary approaches in fundamental and applied research. By combining these approaches, we have been able identify and locate genes (gene typing), as well as determine the function of coded proteins. The creation of the first genetic maps has made possible research in resemblances and differences within a single family or several families afflicted with the same disease.
We are currently seeing many therapeutic and economic developments in genetics, although these pose major social and ethical problems: genetic or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, pharmacogenomics, gene therapy, cloning, genetic imprinting, and the production of drugs and the development of products of agronomic interest for the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Areas of Research in Genetics
Fields of Research
The areas of research in genetics, genomics, and biotechnologies concern both humans and animals, plants, microorganisms and complex ecosystems. The knowledge acquired through fundamental and applied research have made possible significant advances in the areas of health, nutrition, agriculture and the environment.
This new knowledge, the basis of major scientific concerns, offers major economic prospects and raises important ethical and social questions.
Concerns for Humans
Too often called the third medical revolution because of the hopes they raise, genetics and genomics actually cover a much broader area than just health. While human health is a major goal, genetics and genomics are also concerned with other major issues.
Gene therapy, for example, could allow us to effectively fight diseases for which medicine offers only partial or palliative solutions: rare monogenic diseases (neuro-muscular diseases, cystic fibrosis, etc.), or more common diseases (cardiovascular diseases, type-1 diabetes, cancer, diseases of the central nervous system).
In the area of nutrition, biotechnologies will become key tools in implementing balanced and reasoned economic development. By applying the discoveries in genetics and genomics to agriculture, we should be able to develop plants capable of growing in dry or poor soil. It is conceivable that we might reduce or even eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides which are dangerous for the environment. Other applications could be to fight the depletion of soil and water resources. It is foreseeable that we might provide developing countries with seeds that are suited to their ecological and climatic conditions, as well as their customs.
Biotechnologies also offer effective traceability methods. Naturally, such developments, whose importance for our societies can be measured, must first be validated scientifically, then debated for their social impacts before moving to industrial production. Indeed, while their risks are probably slight, the impact of these techniques, the importance they will likely assume, require that we remain vigilant before using them on a large scale.
The complete sequence of the human genome and the knowledge acquired in molecular genetics make possible a more rational approach to human diseases. The early 21st century will likely be marked by the identification of the function of many genes with, as a result, the discovery of new therapeutic targets.
The life sciences also offer new prospects for fruitful collaboration with other disciplines: mathematics, physics, chemistry, computing (the key sector for large-scale biology, notably with bio-chips), engineering sciences (process engineering, nanotechnologies, microfluidics, automation, etc.).
This importance of this evolution requires cooperation between sciences and techniques, fundamental research and its applications, public and private research.