Nearly every cell in the human body—from the ones in the very tips of your toes to the ones that make up your brain—contains not just strands of DNA, but complete sets. If you were to break down your DNA strand by strand, you would get approximately three billion base pairs. Every single base pair contains operating instructions that are responsible for making you who you are. From your hair and eye color to your susceptibility for disease, your DNA influences every aspect of your being.
For years, doctors have been able to test specific genes to identify the presence of mutations associated with certain health disorders, such as sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis. However, it wasn’t only until very recently that scientists have been able to conduct whole genome sequencing, which involves mapping out a person’s entire genetic code by sequencing 20,000+ genes in one fell swoop. Now that scientists have mastered this process, however, they can do it quickly and for a fairly affordable price. According to Genome.gov, you can have your entire genome sequenced for less than $1,000. That said, why would you want to sequence your DNA?
What Is DNA Sequencing?
Times asks you to think of DNA sequencing as reading a book line by line, letter by letter, in search of spelling and grammatical errors. Now take that analogy one step further and consider what it would be like to do the same for every page in every book in a public library. Though we’re all made up of the same components—a 26 letter alphabet, paper, and binding—some of us are bound to contain more mistakes than others. Though some of those mistakes are harmless, others may be responsible for the presence of disease. If they’re not responsible for the presence of disease, they are responsible for turning certain genes on and off that could have prevented the onset of illness. DNA sequencing is done to spot those mistakes and inform scientists of what measures doctors can take to promote lasting health.
Why is DNA Sequencing Important?
Though DNA sequencing has not gotten to the point where researchers can fix mistakes in the sequence and thereby remove the risk for disease, it can provide healthcare providers with vast amounts of information regarding a person’s susceptibility to certain diseases. The result is an increased potential for more accurate and effective diagnostics and therapies.
Though genome sequencing is still years away from being the norm, some healthcare facilities have begun to use it to detect and treat certain diseases. For instance, in cancer cases, physicians can use genome sequencing to identify the particular type of cancer a patient has and to make better choices regarding treatment. Other facilities have used the method to identify the genetic causes for rare diseases, while yet others have been studying its use in screening newborns for certain conditions and risks for disease.
Though DNA sequencing has a long way to go before it becomes the norm, the potential is there, and it is huge. Once whole genome sequencing is readily available to the masses, it could change the way society views disease and its expectations for health.