Rethinking Africa and The Epistemic Bases of The Human Genome Project.
We spoke to Abdulrazak Ibrahim, PhD, a biotechnologist with experience in tissue culture & genetic transformation, molecular techniques, RNA interference technology. He is also experienced in Africa’s Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D). We talked about The Human Genome Project and Africa's absence in the world-wide research on genetics.
For most people, the idea of a reference genome sounds contradictory to what we understand about the difference in the genetic make-up of individuals, i.e no two individuals have the same genetic makeup. Could you begin by explaining the conceptual basis of the human genome project?
The language of life as encoded in our DNA is written using four letters: A, C, G and T. Humans typically have 3 billion of those letters arranged in a cell. If the DNA of one cell is stretched out, it will be about 2 m in length. Doing that for the DNA in all our cells (a human body contains about 30 trillion cells) will cover twice the diameter of the Solar System.
A comparison of the 3 billion letters of your cell with your child’s, will show that 1.5 billion of those letters are from you and the other half from your partner. Brothers or sisters who share the same parents will thus have roughly the same letters. This is why siblings look alike. But they also look different because the way these letters are arranged in their individual DNA is different. For example, if one sibling has the sequence “AACTG” in one region, another may have “AAGTG” in the same region. Notice that the difference here is only in the third letter. In the jargon of molecular biology, this is called Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP, pronounced “snip”).
SNPs occur once in every 1,000 letters of DNA. SNPs and other sources of variation are significant enough to cause 2 individuals with the same DNA to look different. So, when you inherit 50% of DNA from each of your parents, you also inherit 50% SNPs from each, which will then form your own unique SNPs. The more closely related you are to a person, the more similar are your SNPs. This is why people of the same tribe/ethnicity or language group also look similar.
The Human Genome Project lasted for ten years, with collaborations by universities and research institutes contributing from America, Asia and Europe. Do you think Africa's absence in this crucial event has a role in the exclusion of African DNA?
It does. But then, if you’re a researcher working on a human genome project anywhere in the world, and you’re looking for collaborators, you’ll reach out to peers that have published work that show competence in that field. Africa is actually a genetic goldmine and will be a dream for anyone interested in studying the genome to work with. However, low capacity on the continent has meant that the region contributes little in that respect.
Thus very little data may have been sourced from indigenous populations since that would technically require local participation. The regulatory frameworks and requirements for a scientist from another country to collect samples here and use them for genome-wide analyses, make such endeavor impossible in many cases. But things are changing now.
There's the view that no amount of improvements to a common reference genome will be able to fully capture the genetic diversities that arise as the genome of new populations are sequenced so that we might not only be dealing with a problem of incorporation but the need for multiple reference genomes. Do you agree with this?
I think we should have as many reference genomes as possible. The more SNPs you can study, the better you understand the human and human condition. In Nigeria alone, just take a trip from Kano, through Benue and Obudu. The human diversity you'll notice is absolutely amazing. We absolutely need more reference genomes.
This exclusion of the African DNA came to light relatively recently. Do you think we may have suffered, or are currently suffering the consequences of this exclusion, especially for biomedical decisions that have drawn on the current reference genome, say, in vaccine development and disease diagnosis?
Yes. Beyond understanding the genetic basis of disease prevalence across regions and in different human populations, reference genomes and pan-genomic analyses are important as we usher the era of personalized medicine, which will, in the future be quite common. So, we may have been excluded in some cases. This further underscores the need for more studies within the African continent.
The Human Genome Project is based on a kind of scientific essentialism, where the identity of an organism is based on the possession of certain essential properties. Following that line of thought, what might the exclusion of African DNA from the essential properties (reference genome) of the human species mean for Africans? Does it mean we are more human or less so, for instance?
We as humans have evolved to adapt to different environments. As we understand our environment better, our technological innovations lead to group selection pressures that continuously challenge us to adjust. Personally, I think we are still trying to understand what it is to really be human. If you have a 3-D printed heart or an artificial ear, when your heart beats or when you hear, as the case may be, we may not say you are using a “human” heart to have blood pumped around your body, or a “human” ear to listen.
Beyond the philosophical conundrum the question of being human presents, I think we are looking at a possible moment in human history when there will be a fusion of humans and machines. It’s a Pandora’s box and it’s probably already open. We are faced with an era of biological revolution and the language is genetic in nature. More reasons why we should understand our genomes.
Do you think this exclusion of African DNA from the reference genome is an African crisis and is it up to Africans to solve it?
I won’t call it a crisis. It’s a limitation and it’s not just for Africa. As the cradle of humanity, it will be to the benefit of humanity that the mysteries of African DNA are unveiled as this will provide us with a better understanding of our biology for better health and nutrition. However, Africa needs to be bold and deploy the science. There is a limit to which any external collaborator can support us in that respect. But like I mentioned in my article, here are some encouraging results and inspiring stories
Most African countries are still very wary of the products of genetic enhancement -- Genetically Modified Crops, for instance. How ready is Africa to begin to tap into the benefits of Biotechnology in solving problems?
Africa is not very ready, but the biological revolution is upon us. We don’t have much time though. Given the vulnerabilities we face within our food systems, especially now with the looming consequences of COVID-19 on food security and the underlying security challenges and climate-change-induced vulnerabilities, smart decisions are needed in developing and adopting technologies like Genetically Engineered and CRISPR crops. However, there are leaders like Nigeria,Kenya, and Uganda emerging in this respect, and given their sizes, we may witness some significant impact. But we are far behind.
What's the way forward?
We need Capacity and investment in Research & Development and Science Technology and Innovation