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Church Outlines Future of PGP at Conference

By Andrea Anderson

CAMBRIDGE, MA (GenomeWeb News) – By integrating information from the nuclear genome with a wide range of other data — from brain scans to immune system patterns — those involved with the Personal Genomes Project hope to gain a more complete picture of the interplay between genetics, the environment, and individual traits.

Speaking at the Genomes, Environment, Traits conference held here yesterday, PGP leader and participant George Church noted, for instance, that information from immune, cancer, and microbial genomes will contribute to a more complete picture of human health and traits.

The PGP, which was launched in 2007, involves sequencing large cohorts of identified individuals with a range of traits. Church's own genome was sequenced by Complete Genomics and published in Science late last year.

Church said the PGP already has institutional review board approval in Boston to sequence 100,000 individuals and plans to enroll additional people at other centers around the world.

As our sister publication In Sequence reported last month, the PGP is currently enrolling individuals for the PGP-100 phase of the project.

Along with making efforts to improve the interpretation of genome data and its applications, the researchers are also turning their attention to additional genomes of interest — from immune genomes and cancer genomes to microbial genomes associated with the human body.

For instance, Church said, researchers involved in studying the PGP vaccination "immune-ome" have been looking at the dynamic immune response following vaccination, doing time course experiments to track individuals' immune response following hepatitis and influenza vaccinations. Such studies are intended to help uncover connections between specific immune system rearrangements and the pathogens that immune system components are binding, he explained.

The researchers are also considering where to go with epigenetic studies and are considering experiments that might ultimately be scaleable to all 100,000 PGP participants.

For example, Church said, it should be possible to convert skin samples to stem cells that can be used for studying epigenetic patterns in the near future and perhaps developing personalized therapies down the road.

In addition, magnetic resonance imaging is being used to look at brain patterns in a subset of PGP participants, including Church.

Such steps are intended to provide insights into the way environment impacts the genome as well as the influence of both genetics and environments on phenotypic traits themselves, including those that are still poorly characterized.

"Genotype is less than half the story," Church said, noting that an individual's environment can change their genomes in a variety of ways — many of them yet unknown.

In a series of sessions held throughout the day at GET, several PGP participants and other individuals with publicly available genomes discussed their decisions to have their genomes sequenced. While most described their experiences positively, Church pointed out some of the ethical questions that need to be considered with regards to personal genome data and genome sequencing in general.

"We should imagine the unintended consequences, both positive and negative," Church said.