Genomics research has unlocked the code of life — the vast amounts of biological information stored within DNA.
And because all living things have a genome (humans, animals, plants, microbes), this technology is changing how we see and interact with the living world across multiple sectors. Genomics is improving our understanding of biological systems at a molecular level and transforming how society approaches solutions to complex challenges. These applications include health, forestry, fisheries, aquaculture, agrifood, energy, mining and the environment.
However, genomics is still a relatively new science. Many people are excited about the revolutionary advances made possible through genomics research, while others are more cautious. The use of genomics is transformative, eliciting concern from various social groups. Examining and addressing these concerns is essential as new and powerful genomic solutions are developed and applied. As the technology advances, it is critical to view the science through a broader societal lens to understand the impact that omic1 technologies have on society, now and into the future. Inclusive and transparent dialogue is needed to identify and mitigate barriers while helping to increase understanding of genomics. Stakeholders and the general public need to be engaged in innovative projects at the outset so their views and concerns can be meaningfully addressed, and science can be applied responsibly.
Despite the relative newness of genomics, the science has made rapid advancements since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Serving as a watershed moment in history, the past two decades have witnessed a revolution where genomics has continued to prove itself as an essential tool in both medical and industrial applications — providing solutions to the rising global demands for food, healthcare and a clean environment. Almost weekly, the genome of any one of the billions of living organisms on earth has been sequenced for the first time. And as more organisms are discovered, sequencing any one of those genomes might unearth a new gene that could potentially cure a disease, make farming more productive, assist with bioremediation or aid in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.
For example, with a rapid increase in global population and climate related challenges, farmers are struggling to grow enough food to feed the world. By applying genomic technologies, some traditional plant breeding practices are giving way to molecular assisted breeding techniques that allow rapid selection of agriculturally and economically important traits that could quickly be put into the hands of farmers to increase yields.
Climate change is also affecting our oceans. Water temperatures are rising, and oxygen is being depleted. In British Columbia this has resulted in declining salmon populations that adversely affect commercial and recreational fishing, as well as Indigenous communities that rely on salmon as a primary food source, and forms an important part of their cultural identity. Genomics is now being used to identify genetic traits in salmon which will help scientists to develop strategies that address the impact of climate change.
The diagnosis and treatment of cancer continues to be difficult for patients. A major concern for doctors and patients is the potential toxicity of cancer medications and their variable effectiveness. Precision health, utilizing omic information, allows for the creation of customized treatment plans tailored to a patient’s and tumour’s genetic profile – mitigating adverse drug reactions, toxicity and improving patient outcomes.
In order for genomics to successfully provide solutions to challenges such as these, it is vital to understand societal concerns and respond accordingly — adapting technology application to ensure its responsible use. Listening, consultation and citizen participation are key to the adoption of genomics — and all innovative technology — to understand why or why not society accepts particular applications or cutting-edge technologies.
Genome BC’s continuing work in genomics and society supports the further development of regulatory frameworks and policies to safely support the implementation of genomics.
Genome British Columbia (Genome BC) has been a consistent leader at the intersection of genomics and society. Our belief has always been that while the research and development of genomics based applications is a scientific pursuit, the acceptance and appropriate use of genomics is a societal question. We believe that additional societal research, beyond the application of genomics to a specific project or product, is as important as the genomics research itself.
To this end, the study of the societal impacts of genomics has always been a required research component in Genome Canada’s large-scale applied research project funding. In addition, Genome BC has developed its own unique programs to address this important area of research — genomics and the ethical, economic, environmental, legal and societal implications (commonly referred to as GE3LS). We have funded a significant number of research projects that have specifically investigated the implications of using omic technologies and how their applications could potentially impact society.
Genome BC is the only regional centre to fund stand-alone genomics and society research with the goal of expanding BC’s research capacity in this area. This focus will ensure genomic scientists look beyond biological sciences and ask how their discoveries and innovations may help ensure efforts in genomics contribute to positive societal impact and the common good.
Genomics is a powerful tool that can provide viable solutions to a variety of complex social issues. Its utility is dependent on society’s understanding and acceptance of the technology. Genome BC is committed to investigating societal questions and working with genomics researchers, businesses, industry and policy makers to enable the responsible use of this powerful technology to positively impact life, every day.
This article appears in Genome BC’s 2018/19 Annual Report.
View the whole report here.