Genomics is the study of the genetic structure (genome) of a living organism. The Human Genome Project is an international research effort to identify the genome of human life through a complete mapping and sequencing of the human DNA. Researchers are also mapping the genomes of some of the important pathogens, disease vectors, and plants. It is hoped that studies of the genetic structure of living organisms will produce benefits for human health.
Genetic research, particularly in the human genome, has the potential in the coming years to lead to major medical advances against such killer diseases as malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS. This could save millions of lives, especially in the developing world. It is hoped that such research will allow developing countries to “leapfrog decades of medical development”. Geneticists have recently announced that they have complete genetic maps for the three stages in the malaria life cycle, which offers strong hope for the development of a malaria vaccine.
Supporters of genetic research believe that it can be used in the fight against major diseases. However, this will require major capital investment into research and development of new treatments and there is concern that investment will focus only on diseases that affect rich countries.
Within genomics, there are two kinds of resources:
- Genetic resources. Defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity as “genetic material of actual or potential value”. Genetic material is any material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin that contains functional units of heredity. Through genetic engineering, genetic resources represent the building blocks of improved crops, livestock and fish and are very important in the development of pharmaceuticals.
- Indigenous genetic resources (see also traditional knowledge). These are resources that have been managed by a community, usually outside the formal scientific sector. There are a number of issues around ownership of IPR and biopiracy.
Bioinformatics is the science of handling and analysing large amounts of data, in particular data related to biological research and genomic science. This field is related to biotechnology, which is the use of biological processes or organisms to produce materials and services of benefit to humankind. Biotechnology includes the use of techniques for the improvement of economically important plants and animals and for the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).