Computer and Web Technology crucial to scientific breakthrough

The first genetic 'blueprint' of a multi-celled animal has been completed it was announced yesterday. Without computer technology it would never have happened.

A one millimetre worm may not seem like a complex organism but its genetic code is 97 million words long and will only ever be published on the Internet. The data needed for the project was immense, requiring over 200 machines and many terrabytes of space. Special sequencing machines and software programmes were developed in the 15 year-long project to store data, track data and convert the four-letter genetic code of the worm into something meaningful. Without computer technology David Lawson, scientist on the project believes the task "would be basically impossible". The sharing of information between the scientific community was also crucial to the project and much of this was web-based.

The mapping of the worm has immense impact on the wider picture of genetics. Although a tiny transparent creature may seem almost as far removed from humanity as it is possible to get, we actually have a lot in common. The animal has a nervous system, muscles, gut and skin just like humans and around 40 percent of its genes are closely related to ours. "They are like us -- a microcosm of humanity," said Dr John Sulston, director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge. "Through them we are learning about all animals and all life," he added.

A creature's genome -- all its DNA, including genes -- is the biological recipe for what makes it what it is. Apart from identical twins, a human's genome is unique to the individual. "To have a better understanding of how an animal is built we can get some way closer to knowing how the human body works in health as well as in illness." Potentially this could lead to new treatments for diseases, an ability to slow down the ageing process and even prevent cells from dying.

Also read BodyTechnic.

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