Geneticists Begin Tests of an Internet for DNA

Antonio Regalado in MIT Technology Review: “A coalition of geneticists and computer programmers calling itself the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health is developing protocols for exchanging DNA information across the Internet. The researchers hope their work could be as important to medical science as HTTP, the protocol created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, was to the Web.
One of the group’s first demonstration projects is a simple search engine that combs through the DNA letters of thousands of human genomes stored at nine locations, including Google’s server farms and the University of Leicester, in the U.K. According to the group, which includes key players in the Human Genome Project, the search engine is the start of a kind of Internet of DNA that may eventually link millions of genomes together.
The technologies being developed are application program interfaces, or APIs, that let different gene databases communicate. Pooling information could speed discoveries about what genes do and help doctors diagnose rare birth defects by matching children with suspected gene mutations to others who are known to have them.
The alliance was conceived two years ago at a meeting in New York of 50 scientists who were concerned that genome data was trapped in private databases, tied down by legal consent agreements with patients, limited by privacy rules, or jealously controlled by scientists to further their own scientific work. It styles itself after the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, a body that oversees standards for the Web.
“It’s creating the Internet language to exchange genetic information,” says David Haussler, scientific director of the genome institute at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is one of the group’s leaders.
The group began releasing software this year. Its hope—as yet largely unrealized—is that any scientist will be able to ask questions about genome data possessed by other laboratories, without running afoul of technical barriers or privacy rules….(More)”