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FEATURE: Survey Finds Only Half of Genome Database Users Aware of Free Resources

NEW YORK, May 18 – It may seem surprising, considering the amount of publicity the Human Genome Project has garnered over the past year, but a recent Wellcome Trust survey indicates that only half of biomedical researchers using genome databases are familiar with the services provided by Ensembl and other freely available options.

Although the number of hits on the Ensembl website has doubled since the publication of the Human Genome Project’s findings in Nature in February, a questionnaire sent to 777 individuals funded by the Wellcome Trust found that only 82 used Ensembl regularly, 189 used it occasionally, and only 50 percent of those who used DNA databases regularly used Ensembl at all.

Even more surprising was the finding that of those who didn’t use Ensembl, 50 percent had never heard of it.

The survey found that the top three ways researchers currently learn about the service are: referred by a colleague (39 percent), through scientific literature (17 percent), and via weblink (24 percent). In response, the research charity launched an advertising campaign to proactively promote the use of the public human genome databases.

The advertising campaign is a first for the Welcome Trust, which invested 8 million pounds ($11.4 million) to set up and run Ensembl and also contributed 210 million pounds to the Human Genome Project.

Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust, said, “After our large-scale investment in the Human Genome Project, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that the public resources are fully utilized, in order to deliver the health benefits that will undoubtedly flow from the use of this information.”

Taking a page from the playbooks of its fee-based database competitors, the Trust has started running a series of print ads in Science and Nature to target scientists in both industry and academia.

“Many more scientists must be made aware of the high-quality public data and the fact that it can be used for free,” Dexter said.

Driving home the point that the quality of the data is every bit as good as more pricey options, a second questionnaire sent to 404 Ensembl users in both academia and industry concluded that 26 percent of current users rate the Ensembl database higher than Celera’s and only 1.1 percent said it was worse. The corresponding figures for DoubleTwist’s database were 11 percent and 1.1 percent. In addition, 83 percent of the respondents said they regularly or occasionally used Ensembl, compared to 32 percent for Celera and 17 percent for DoubleTwist.

In addition, the study found that of the current users of Ensembl:  

  • 87 percent said they would definitely visit the Ensembl site again.
  • 95 percent gave it a rating of average, good, or excellent.
  • 95 percent got some, most, or all of the information they wanted.
  • 48 percent said they had visited 10 or more times.

The survey determined that 54 percent of current Ensembl users rely on it to determine potential homologues of genes or proteins, 51 percent use it to determine the identity of sequenced human DNA, and 50 percent use it to determine whether a particular human gene has been sequenced. Only 37 percent of current users download bioinformatics research tools from Ensembl.

Proponents of the free service include Allen Roses, senior vice president of genetics research at GlaxoSmithKline, who said the pharmaceutical company is “impressed by its data quality and technical approach.” Other commercial users include Oxford GlycoSciences and AstraZeneca.

The campaign to promote the public genome data is backed by a number of high-ranking British officials, including Science Minister Lord Sainsbury and Sir Robert May, President of the Royal Society. Both men stressed the ethical importance of keeping genomic data in the public domain.

“For this scientific endeavor to work effectively and bring widespread benefit as quickly as possible, it is vital that all researchers have access to the full genome without charge or other impediment,” said May. “The human genome sequence itself must be freely available to all humankind. This is in the best interests of both science and industry, as well as being morally right.”

But Mike Stratton, head of the Cancer Genome Project at the Wellcome Trust's
Sanger Center, had a more pragmatic view of the public databases. “Why you would want to pay when you can get it free is beyond me,” Stratton said.

This story previously appreared in GenomeWeb's sister publication BioInform, a weekly newsletter about the bioinformatics industry.

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