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Gene Chips and Functional Genomics

A new technology will allow environmental health scientists to track the expression of thousands of genes in a single, fast and easy test

Hisham Hamadeh, Cynthia Afshari

Just as physics and the space program dominated the century that is now ending, biotechnology will dominate the coming one. As if to underscore this point, the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics jointly announced earlier this year that they had succeeded in sequencing most of the human genome. This and other biotechnological advances grab our attention because they offer at least the promise of improving our lives and health through the development of better drugs, more efficient diagnostics, healthier foods and a cleaner environment.

In this new era, novel technologies are supplementing traditional biological methods. Computing tools coupled with sophisticated engineering devices now facilitate discovery in specialized areas such as genetics. The rapid sequencing of the entire genome of people, as well as that of other organisms, provides a wealth of information about who we are genetically. However, whereas our complete genetic code will soon be known, we will not understand the meaning—the translation—of the code for quite some time. Among the emerging new technologies are those that take us to that next step in discerning gene function.

Figure 1. Kuwait City in 1991Click to Enlarge Image

One such advance merges inventions from the semiconductor and computer industry with laser engineering and with high-level mathematical computations. This technological amalgam underlies the DNA microarray or, as it is better known, gene-chip technology. Microarrays will allow scientists and physicians to assess the genetic status of an entire organ, or maybe someday, an entire organism, even if they do not know the exact function of every gene. In our laboratory, we are especially interested in understanding how environmental toxicants may affect gene expression, and we are applying gene-chip technology toward this end.

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