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There are around 100 trillion cells in the human body, each one containing three billion base pairs of DNA. If stretched in a line, they would cover the distance from Earth to the Moon more than 8,000 times. The point, according to Beijing Genomics CEO Ye Yin, is that there's a huge amount of information locked in each of us – and decoding it all could unlock big secrets.
BGI Genomics is one of the world's leading genomics companies. Among its successes are decoding the Sars virus and creating the first detection kit; sequencing the first ancient human's genome; and serving as a key sequencing centre in the 1000 Genomes Project.
Despite the information density of the human genome, the actual genetic diversity between species isn't that wide. Speaking at WIRED Health, Yin pointed out that we share 63 per cent of our genes with fish and up to 96 per cent with chimpanzees. Even between two humans, the individual genetic variance is only around 0.5 per cent, yet it can result in pronounced differences.
"You can grow as tall as Yao Ming, or as short as Chandra Bahadur Dangi," said Yin. "There are maybe only a few base pairs difference in certain genes [but] genes determine many variable obvious phenotypes. For example, double or single eyelids, whether you can bend your thumbs back or not, if you can roll your tongue, even how much alcohol you can drink."
But if genes can be accurately mapped, then Yin predicts a "big data revolution for healthcare". Already, non-invasive prenatal tests can test in-utero babies' DNA for Down's Syndrome, and Yin sees "gene tech" becoming like vaccines – a public health shield.
Widespread genetic sequencing also has the potential to reflect population-wide health trends. Ying showed heatmaps generated from sequencing data depicting rates of likelihood of disease-causing mutations across China, contrasted against Europe. If the practise became common, the information could even reveal health differences between towns, potentially highlighting local-scale problems.
Beyond the wealth of information in our cells, Yin points to another genomic factor than can impact our health – the bacteria in our guts.
"There are always two to three kilograms of gut microbiobials in every person," he said . "It's another genome in our body – even called a second breed. If you feel hungry, maybe it's your bacteria that feels hungry, not you. They're saying 'you must give us some cultures we want'."
Even though it's all coming from the same gene background – the human body – different microgenomics can have huge effects. Experiments on mice have shown that swapping bacteria can affect weight gain and retention. "The results are a brand new way of rethinking various nutritional elements, and how to correct these," said Yin.
Which highlights his final point – that genomics can only help us solve so much. Although the phenomenal amount of data in our bodies can, and eventually will be mapped, right down to the individual and microgenomic levels, human behaviour and choices will remain a major influence on our health.