Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on the growing field of genomics and bioinformatics in the Silicon66 region. Through this series, which will run weekly through November 1, we will be taking a snapshot look at not only the industry of genomics, but at some of the region’s tech startups that are delving into this field.
When Langston University Extension Research Specialist Dr. Yonathan Tilahun was a child, he was responsible for mucking out the stalls at the university’s E (Kika) de la Garza American Institute for Goat Research , one of the largest goat research facilities in the world.
He grew up in the Oklahoma countryside that surrounds the university, and although he didn’t know it at the time, his career would come full circle back to that university herd. These days, he isn’t cleaning out goat stalls anymore; instead, he and his students are trying to identify which genes are responsible for higher milk yield in goats.
Tilahun is delving into the field of genomics to identify those genes in order to isolate them and create a specialized chip that will help goat producers.
Thanks to the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003, universities and businesses globally are using genomics to develop new services, research, products and more. Even better, the science today is much more affordable due to rapidly advancing technology.
The Human Genome Project allowed researchers to better understand diseases by genotyping specific viruses to discover appropriate treatment, but also gave boost to a new field called “genomics,” the discipline of mapping and sequencing an organism’s genome, which is the entire DNA content that is present within one cell of an organism.
“Genomics has been a growing field for some time and is a major aspect of molecular biology,” said Dr. Tilahun. “Genomics as a whole will increase exponentially, especially as data gathering continues on different organisms. Not only are projects being done, but new technology is being developed like ‘next-generation’ sequencing technology and more. A lot of the startup ideas today popped up with genomics, but now the focus is on next-gen sequencing.”
Genomics is now having wide applications in agriculture, livestock, bioenergy, medicine and more. In the Midwest and Southwest, where livestock production is a major industry, startup companies are on the leading edge of using that science to improve production, animal health and genetic tracking.
GENOMICS ON THE HOOF
Tilahun said his work in identifying which genes are associated with high milk production in goats is similar to what is being done with cattle. Because the goat genome was fully sequenced last year by an international consortium, he and his students can now break that sequencing down to specific traits.
The entire goat genome and all its sequencing was included on a specialized single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) chip. Tilahun wants to pull out those specific genes that apply only to milk production for a smaller, more accessible and cheaper SNP chip that goat farmers large and small can use.
SNP information are used to fill gaps that exist in the genetic maps of species and are often used in genetic mapping, purity testing and other trait identification. SNP chips can be commissioned by farmers to help identify the most appropriate breeds for dairy production.
“The chip will be more affordable and more accessible for those producers, but it will also be quicker to identify those goats with the high-yield gene,” said Tilahun.
The application for the goat industry is obvious. Producers can test each goat to determine which to breed forward to create a herd that dominates at producing high quality milk.
Such research is being done at universities around the globe, and because universities own the patents to such technology, the opportunity for private and public partnerships is growing. Businesses and corporations are using the research to develop marketable products, and universities get royalties from the sale of such products in order to fund additional research.
“I think the business of the future has already begun,” Tilahun said. “Private businesses are tying in with universities already, and that’s the next step in genomics in general. You’re having private businesses initiate their own track as far as identifying what genes they want to focus on, but there is a collaborative effort between new businesses and universities.”
Genomics is not only advancing in leaps and bounds, it’s becoming more affordable. The cost to sequence a full human genome was $300 million a decade ago, but today, companies are doing it for $3,000 or less.
Startup companies are using genomics, but through that, bioinformatics is the new entrepreneurial buzz word.
Bioinformatics, which include methods and software tools for understanding biological data, are allowing companies in the livestock and agriculture industry especially to create niche, highly-marketable new services.
The ability to analyze the massive data generated from sequencing is also better, and venture capitalists are pouring money into this new technology. According to TechCrunch.com, genomic tech companies saw an almost 50 percent increase in venture investments in 2014 while total capital committed more than doubled to reach $687 million last year.
Well over 100 genomic and genome companies exist today, but bioinformatic businesses are growing just as fast. According to recent market research by MarketandMarket, the global bioinformatics market was estimated to reach $4.2 billion by the end in 2014 and is poised to reach $13.3 billion by 2020.
Factors such as increasing government initiatives and funding, and growing use of bioinformatics in drug discovery and biomarkers development processes, are leading to growth of the market.
Genomics is expected to be the fastest growing application segment during the forecast period.
“A lot of universities are moving to public and private partnerships in genomics more and more,” Tilahun said. “The technology is so much better now, so sequencing can be done quickly and more organisms can be sequenced now. Genomics as a whole is the future.”