International Conference and Public Symposium celebrating 50 years of Genetics at TCD

Posted on: 17 September 2008

Genetics has had an enormous impact on society over the last 50 years.  Trinity College’s Department of Genetics and Smurfit Institute of Genetics have, throughout that time, been at the forefront of research and development within the sector, producing some of Ireland’s leading experts and developing a culture of excellence and innovation within genetics research.

An international conference celebrating 50-years of genetics at Trinity College Dublin  featuring internationally renowned geneticists and their research took place in Trinity from September 17-19.  At the Genetics@50 conference experts spoke on medical genetics, neurogenetics, evolutionary genetics, microbial genetics and plant genetics. It  concluded with a public symposium, The Secret of Life – Genetics in the 21st Century on Saturday, September 20th.

In the public symposium The Secret of Life – Genetics in the 21st Century, TCD’s Smurfit Institute of Genetics assembled a group of leading scientists to address recent developments in their areas of expertise and to highlight important issues that arise from out newfound knowledge and capabilities.  That DNA sequencing of the genomes of organisms or individuals can be performed on an almost industrial scale, has led to advances in our understanding of genetics, but has also raised many important issues.  Our understanding of evolution has been significantly enhanced: 

Professor Steve Jones (University College London) discussed recent advances in our understanding of evolution and address our relationship with our closest ancestors and ask the question “are we still evolving ?”.  Knowing the complete genome sequence of an individual can identify susceptibilities to disease facilitating prophylactic action.

Dr Brian Naughton (also a graduate of the Genetics Department TCD and co-founder of 23andMe) discussed the service provided by 23andMe whereby a person’s genome can be screened for genes associated with particular traits including (but not restricted to) disease susceptibility.  The ability to acquire such information commercially raises issues such as its reliability, whether it should be made available a person outside a clinical context, who should have access to this information and whether one is obliged to inform an insurance company when applying for a loan/mortgage ?  Because of its size and complexity, the genome sequence of each individual (be it cow or human) is unique, allowing their identification unambiguously. 

Rockne Harmon (San Francisco District Attorney’s Office) addressed how the unique nature of each genome sequence is used in the area of forensic science:  where biological material collected at a crime scene can be analyzed to associate or exclude individuals from a crime scene.  He also addressed how this technology is being used to exonerate individuals of crimes they were convicted of but could not have committed. 

Professor Patrick Cunningham (Trinity College Dublin and Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government) addressed how the technology being used in forensic science is also being used to trace domestic animals in the human food chain.  He also discussed the contribution of genetics to enhancing crop and livestock production.  Genetics also contributes to our understanding of disease. Many millions have died from AIDS and more than 33 million are currently infected with the virus.  This disease appeared suddenly in the 1980s, prompting speculation as to its origins. 

Professor Paul Sharp (University of Edinburgh) illustrated how genetics has contributed to our very detailed knowledge of where this virus originated.  This knowledge can inform us of potential sources of future pandemics and how they are likely to progress.  Modern genetics has had a profound impact on the diagnosis and treatment of disease.  Much recent attention has focused on stem cells and their potential in treatment of disease. 

Professor Steve Minger (Kings College London) explained the nature and biological significance of stem cells.  He discussed the difference between embryonic and somatic stem cells and important ethical issues surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells and  outlined recent advances in stem cell technology and explain the potential of stem cells in the treatment of disease.

This public symposium was aimed at the non-scientist –  with the goal to explain simply and to inform on important areas of genetics that are having, and will continue to have, a profound impact on our society.  In so doing it is hoped to also convey the current excitement that genetics is bringing to our understanding of nature and the human condition.