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A milestone for genomics

Just six years ago, about the time researchers began to sequence the malaria parasite, the first complete genome of a free-living organism was published. This week, the malaria parasite and the main malaria mosquito join the list of sequenced organisms, marking a milestone for malaria researchers and for the field of genomics.

Less than two years after the human genome was published, the talk on the street is changing. Fewer people are asking "What's a genome?"; more people, including reporters and researchers, are now asking, "What can a genome sequence do to help fight disease?"

One answer—an answer that appears throughout the malaria papers published this week in Science and Nature—is that genomics can speed the development of drugs and vaccines. Malaria researchers are not alone in this belief. Increasingly, researchers are sequencing the genomes of human pathogens as a first step in developing vaccines.

It would be naïve to expect the fruits of any genome project to appear instantly. Just as access to the human genome sequence has not fundamentally changed how we practice medicine, neither is it realistic to expect malaria vaccines in the coming months—or even years.

But the human genome sequence has changed how scientists study human diseases. Genomic tools, such as gene chips, are driving research on the genetics of diseases like leukemia and multiple sclerosis.

So, will the genomic information help malaria researchers? With cautious optimism, many say, "Yes, probably in the long run." As an expert on the parasite Plasmodium falciparum remarked, "We now know that we don't know as much as we thought we did."

Genomics has changed enough in six years that the mosquito and parasite projects seem to come from different eras. The parasite genome took so long because of the technical challenges involved. The mosquito genome was relatively straightforward by comparison, practically setting a speed record for whole-genome sequencing projects.

Although not the first of its kind, the mosquito effort is an example of public and private partnership at its best. The cooperation is encouraging. Given the complexity of malaria and most human diseases, the more minds working on solutions the better.

Edward R. Winstead

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