Chennai-based personal genomics company Xcode Life recently introduced an ancestry mapping test that can tell a person more about their origins and ancestry. For a single strand of a human genome contains close to three billion characters. And some of these characters hold the answers to questions about lineage and identity. Xcode Life was founded in 2011 by Saleem Mohammed and Abdur Rub, to generate more awareness about the genome space.

Mohammed says Xcode Life’s ancestry DNA test is a one-of-its-kind genetic test that gives a detailed break-up of the South Asian population. A person’s DNA can be matched with more than 35 Indian ethnic groups in South Asia.

Globally too, various applications of genetic tests are being approved. A recent example is the American personal genomics and biotech company 23andMe, which received “the first-ever FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) authorization for a direct-to-consumer genetic test for cancer risk". According to a company release, the approval allows 23andMe to provide customers information on three genetic variants found in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are known to be associated with a higher risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.

In an interview to Lounge, Mohammed explains why gene-editing and other facets of genomics hold promise in different application areas, describing it as an engine that covers human beings from birth to death. Edited excerpts:

How has the genetics space evolved? And how has Xcode adapted to that?

If you look at genetics, it’s everything about us (humans): right from the colour of our eyes, to our hair. In some ways, even our height and weight is genetically determined. We saw this plethora of applications that could be launched once you had this information. We saw that the field would advance in a way that the cost would come down and the turnaround time would drop, which is what has happened. Right now, it takes less than 24 hours to sequence a full genome and it costs around $1,000-2,000 (around Rs65,000 to Rs1.3 lakh).

We are still a little away from doing the whole genome, (which is where) another technology called genotyping (comes in), which (involves) knowing a fraction of your entire genome. The human genome has about three billion characters and genotyping can get you a few million characters. So instead of reading the entire genome, you can read portions of it and tell an individual whether a certain food will benefit or not; what kind of exercises would work; (and know more about) allergies and medication.

There’s all kinds of applications. For example, ancestry: what is your maternal or paternal lineage? All these can be done using genotyping, which costs roughly around $100.

Saleem Mohammed
Saleem Mohammed

So, genotyping is something Xcode does.

That’s right. Companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe do genotyping. (Gene) sequencing is more diagnostic in nature.

Tell us more about the ancestry mapping test?

Our expertise is in infomatics, where we take the raw genome data and derive meaningful information from it. Ancestry is one of the application areas, one of the services we launched in December. What we have done is we’ve taken person samples from across the globe: say, around 5,000 samples belonging to Europe, to India, (and) within India, (those) belonging to multiple groups and ethnicities. We’ve now developed an algorithm which will help in determining which particular population you belong to, and your ancestry composition. This is something we have developed for the Indian population, which was not available previously.

But what purpose does it serve? Why would an ancestry mapping test appeal to a layperson—how much does it cost?

It’s about $130. If you look at the global ancestry market, the likes of AncestryDNA and 23andMe are behemoths in this space. There was an article in the MIT Technology Review which showed that 2017 was the breakout year for consumer genetic testing. Some of these companies together processed 12 million tests in one single year, 2017. Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, AncestryDNA sold 1.2 million tests; just across three days.

For us as human beings, it’s more about curiosity, our self and our identity. The Americans being an immigrant population from other parts of the globe, they want to know where they belong. I think that particular curiosity exists not just there, but here as well.

If you look at internet groups and forums, you would see people talking about their ethnicity and how they are 100% this and that. But it might not be that way. I’d say we are all a genetic mosaic. We belong to multiple populations. Even Indians are migrants from other parts of the world…. I think it’s mostly about curiosity and trying to address the question: Who am I?

What are these samples for the ancestry test?

They are gene sequences that are publicly available. We have a team that curates this information. Almost all of it comes from peer-reviewed journal articles.

What else can a person know about themselves apart from the ancestry mapping test?

We have close to 10 reports, spanning nutrition, fitness and health, which cover about 50-odd conditions, from diabetes to Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s. There’s also a BRCA report which is specifically for breast cancer. There are other reports about allergies, skin and vitamin requirements and supplementation.

What goes into completing these tests?

Let’s say a research group from the US would publish (information) about this particular gene mutation that we found to be associated with carbohydrate sensitivity. So we would go and curate this information, combine it with other genes that are associated with carbohydrate sensitivity, bring them all together, and put it in an algorithm.

Are there any ethical concerns when it comes to genetic testing and mapping?

I think this came about right when the human genome was released (the publication of the Human Genome Project in 2003). There were questions over what would happen when people got access to all this information, and if people hacked into it. Fifteen years have passed since then, and, honestly, nothing has happened so far.

Now, people have started talking again about gene-editing. What we are into right now is just reading the genome and making the information available. But with the progress in science, people are editing genes in labs, of course. I think commercially, the applications would come about in the next few years.

There’s a lot of talk about exploitation and ethical concerns. I think most of these applications areas are more constructive in nature than destructive. They actually help in saving lives. People have already started using gene editing to treat blindness.

The application areas are humongous: right from agricultural (applications) to doing a gene drive on mosquitoes to eradicate them; improving the variety of crops and breeding them for specific traits. According to the (US) FDA and all other certifying authorities, gene editing would not classify a crop as genetically modified organism. It would be a non-GMO.

I am sure there are ethical concerns, but just like any other technology, we will combat those and move forward.

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