Research published in PloS Computational Biology
this week has demonstrated the usefulness to life sciences studies of data on genes shared by different species.
For 40 years or more scientists have followed the common consensus that the study of model species such as mice or rats can help shed light on human biological processes, heath and disease. The idea that information on the genes of one kind of animal or organism can be applied to many others is known as the ‘ortholog conjecture’.
An ortholog is a gene shared with a common ancestor, which may have evolved divergent characteristics but often performs the same function across species. For example, the bone structure of a whale flipper, a dog paw and a human hand is fundamentally the same. Paralogs, on the other hand, are imperfect copies of genes within a species.
Researchers from SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) and the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) have taken advantage of the vast amounts of data produced by advanced biotechnology to prove authoritatively that life scientists have been on the right track for all of these years.
"We found that current experimental annotations do support the standard model," said EMBL-EBI’s Christophe Dessimoz. "Our work corroborates the assumption that studying the genes of other species – whether mice, yeast, or even bacteria – can elucidate aspects of human biology."
The team revised the techniques recently used by Matthew Hahn and his colleagues at the University of Indiana in a paper which seemed to disprove the ortholog conjecture. They implemented control measures for previously overlooked biases in the collective knowledge of gene function and analysed data from tens of thousands of scientific studies.
Orthologs and paralogs of more than 400,000 genes from 13 different species were used as the basis of the comparison, which concluded that the genetics of even the most distantly related species – from yeast to worms – could be informative on the topic of human biology.
"We have the data to prove that the study of orthologs is indeed useful, but we are only at the beginning," added Professor Marc Robinson-Rechavi of SIB and the University of Lausanne. "This is at the heart of all of comparative genomics, in which we try to extrapolate knowledge from a handful of organisms and apply it to all of life."