Genetic Auditing

For those of you who don’t dabble* in genetics, we’re in the midst of a major revolution. New technologies have literally transformed the questions we can ask and the data we can gather. It is currently possible (although not always advisable) to collect hundreds of gigabases (that’s 10^11) of data in a single run of a “high-throughput sequencer” (HTS). As a reference, I think there were 10^5 bases in my entire master’s thesis which, let me do the math, means one run on a HTS is equivalent to 1,000,000 of my theses?!?! Although that makes me a little queasy, it’s obvious and amazing progress.

Anyway – what can we do with these awesome new technologies? Coghlan et al. have found novel use, published in a recent PLoS Genetics.

"Bear Bile Crystals". One of the samples genetically audited for illegal and harmful components. From Figure 1 of Coghlan et al. (2012).

Traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) have been used to remedy maladies for thousands of years. The popularity of TCM as a primary, secondary or supplementary medical practice has grown to the point where it is a multi-million dollar industry. TCMs rely heavily on plant and animal components – some of which can come from highly endangered (and thus illegally acquired) species or be harmful to the user. However, determining exactly what’s in a pill or powder isn’t as easy as reading the label.

HTS to the rescue!

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