Getting a Grip on the Human Genome

How furthering our understanding of the human genome can help improve many aspects of our lives is the topic of Genomics Now, a new series of lectures at the UA.

A deeper knowledge "will allow us to figure out what are the causes of diseases, what we will need to do to be able to feed the billions of people that we expect will be on this Earth in the next 50 to 100 years and how ... it is that we got here through the process of evolution," said Dr. Fernando Martinez, who delivers the first lecture in the series, "Are Genes the Software of Life?" on Jan. 30.

Martinez, a scientist and physician, is director of the Arizona Respiratory Center at the University of Arizona. In his Centennial Hall lecture, Martinez will briefly explain the human genome and clarify the false notion that we operate like software.

 "People tend to think of the series of DNA as the software of life, and that we work like a computer or like a machine," Martinez said. "We have some evidence of what a machine is about but we are very, very different from machines."

 He hopes his audience will gain an understanding that there are many factors that contribute to who we are in addition to our genetic composition.

Martinez compares our genomic makeup to a whiteboard in a classroom. He explained that there is a specific portion prewritten for us by our parents before we enter the world, but there are several environmental factors that add to the data on the whiteboard as we progress through life.

 "We're not just a piece of whiteboard which the environment is writing on, but we're not specified at the start. We're both," he said. "That's what makes life so different to anything else that's on the face of the Earth."

Martinez began exploring the genome because of his first passion in life, finding a cure for asthma.

"My first remembrance in my life ... was of my mother, who had very serious asthma, having a very significant asthma attack," he said. "I decided that, one day, I was going to cure asthma."

 Although he has not yet been successful in curing asthma, he believes he has found a way to get closer through considering "the way in which our genes somehow develop this dialogue with the environment we live in and we either become healthy or not healthy," he said.

The College of Science's lecture series, which began in 2006, is a way to inform the public of the latest findings in scientific research, and the topics being discussed in the scientific community, said Elliot Cheu, associate dean in the college. Cheu said the series has become increasingly popular and he expects the genome lectures to continue the trend.

 He anticipates filling Centennial Hall, and the college has set up a room for the expected overflow in the nearby Social Sciences building, where the lectures will broadcast live.

 "The first year we had a line going from Centennial Hall, all the way down Park Avenue, all the way to Sixth Street," Cheu said.

 Attendance, however, isn't the only measure of success, Cheu said. "The real purpose of the lecture series is to demonstrate to our local community the relevance of what we do at the university. "We do all this wonderful research and we really need people to understand how relevant what we do is to their daily lives."