Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Father of Genomics: Fred Sanger Dies Leaving the World a Far Better Place

Without a doubt one of the greats of British science and the world, Fred Sanger invented a relatively simple, reliable and quick technique that allowed thousands of labs around the world to carry out DNA sequencing.
The consequences of that work are difficult to comprehend and a vast amount of subsequent work on living organisms has since been carried out using Sanger's technique.

Sanger reads DNA sequence

As an example, if we search the research paper database Pubmed with the words 'dna sequence' we find that in 1977 (the year Sanger published his technique) there were 1000 papers published. 10 years later there were 10 000 papers being published per year, and since 1995 there have been 35 000 research papers published per year. Sanger sequencing continued to be the most used technology until highly intensive automation was possible using robots to manipulate samples and very powerful computers to assemble sequences in around 2005.

The amount of papers published reflects the amount of gene sequencing that has been carried out - also see the figure below (from this paper) showing us the exponential rise in numbers of sequences submitted to public record (Genbank) since 1982.

Sanger made a second huge contribution to sequencing when he invented shotgun sequencing, a refinement that speeded up the process of generating sequence radically, enabling the practical use of his techniques to sequence entire genomes.

The invention of a technique to sequence large amounts of DNA triggered the start of the effort to sequence the DNA of entire organisms - i.e. their genomes. First small viruses (5400 base pairs, achieved in 1977 by Sanger himself), then more complex eukaryotes (12.5 million base pairs, achieved in 1996) and finally ourselves, humans (3 billion base pairs, achieved in 2001). The human genome is predicted to transform medicine and our understanding of ourselves and all human kind. The prospect of personal genome-driven medicine is looming large as new sequencing techniques drive costs down. That work will lead directly to improvements in the prevention and treatment of many illnesses including aspergillosis and other fungal infections.

For these achievements alone Sanger was awarded the Nobel prize in 1980 but his story is more extraordinary than that. This was his second Nobel prize, the first being achieved for the first sequencing of a protein, insulin. He remains one of only four people to win two Nobel Prizes.

Since 1993 the Sanger name has been given to the hugely successful Wellcome Institute housing the Human Genome Project in Cambridge, UK and his name is used extensively elsewhere in the world.

It isn't too much to say that a fair proportion of our hopes for the future of British (and worldwide) science, medicine,  improvements in our quality of life & health and much more rests on the solid foundations built using the tools fashioned by Fred Sanger.

Sanger's own description of the early years of DNA sequencing
BBC report of his death
What impact did Fred Sanger have on our lives?
A history of genome sequencing

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