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Conference Report At PAG, Standard Fare Meets Human Health, Drug Discovery


At what is widely acknowledged as the largest gathering of genomics scientists working on model organisms, the 13th annual Plant and Animal Genome meeting opened with an unusual focus: human health and drug discovery.

With 2,200 attendees — some 1,950 scientists and a few hundred exhibitors — converging on the Town & Country hotel and convention center in San Diego this January, PAG has grown again. The community continues to represent a variety of organisms and the technologies and approaches to studying them. “There’s quite a lot of very first-rate research in the field,” said Stephen Heller of NIST during his introduction to the meeting.

William Haseltine delivered the opening talk, entitled “From Bench to Bedside in the 21st Century.” At a meeting where most sessions are divided by topics such as soybeans or chickens, the focus of his lecture was a departure from standard PAG fare. For the better part of an hour, Haseltine recounted the history, from his perspective, of the Human Genome Project, beginning with the first time he heard about the concept in 1985.

Haseltine reminded attendees that in the early days many model organism researchers feared that such a project would leach funding from their own research and direct it to human studies. But he noted that many grants were awarded in model organism research in an effort to pave the way for technology development and other advances needed to tackle the human genome. Those grants, he said, were the root of many of today’s funding mechanisms for plant and animal research.

Haseltine also spoke about his own background as a molecular biologist, founding Human Genome Sciences, and how genomics has changed the drug-discovery infrastructure within big pharma. In a call to the audience, he made the case that the genomics field needs more comparative genetics information such as identifying conserved genome sequences across multiple species.

The next talk was more familiar territory to attendees: Elaine Ostrander of NIH presented on genomic studies on complex traits in dog, which has been sequenced by Celera Genomics (1.5x coverage of the poodle) and the Broad Institute (7.6x coverage of the boxer), according to Ostrander. Perhaps the most notable point of her talk, particularly for the model organism community, was her finding that using the 1.5x sequence combined with a dense RH map gave as much information for a comparative genomics study as the nearly 8x sequence — at a cost of just 20 percent of the higher-quality sequence.

Ostrander also pointed out the potential cost savings of performing genotyping studies for diseases that affect both human and dog: a human whole-genome study would require 500,000 SNPs, while the same study in dogs would take just 10,000 to 15,000 SNPs.

— Meredith Salisbury


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