Campus Convo Robinson1

Gene Robinson, director of the UI's Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, talks shop during a taping of staff writer Julie Wurth's 'Campus Conversation' podcast on Thursday, July 18, 2019, at the News-Gazette Media studios in downtown Champaign.

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Campus Conversation: Gene Robinson

Since its founding with tobacco-settlement money, the University of Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology has pulled together hundreds of UI scientists to apply genomics — the study of genetic material — to a dozen research areas.

A geologist helped biologists and medical researchers discover that kidney stones host living microbes. Other teams developed better imaging techniques to pick up genetic markers for cancer, and modified plants to produce more proteins for a hungry world.

In the latest episode of staff writer Julie Wurth’s “Campus Conversation” podcast, honeybee expert and institute Director GENE ROBINSON talks about the “extreme form of team science” that has made the institute a success, the new Earth BioGenome Project, how scientists are addressing ethical issues in genetic research, and much more.

The full podcast is above; here’s a sampling:

Earlier this year, a Chinese scientist announced he had helped produce the world’s first genome-edited babies, disabling a genetic pathway in an embryo that HIV uses to infect cells because the father was HIV positive. It created an uproar, and now a Russian scientist says he wants to do something similar. Why did the scientific community react that way?

It hit a nerve. Some of the issues had to do with the fact that, as the leading scientists in this area have said, it’s still too early. We really don’t know enough about the activity of these genome-editing tools to be able to apply them with certainty to humans.

In particular, one key issue is so-called off-target effects. These tools are very, very precise in where they are editing the genome. ... They can target specific sites. But it’s not 100 percent worked out, and there are off-target effects. So that’s one technical concern.

A more fundamental biological concern is that each gene does many different things, and we don’t know all the things that particular genes do. And so we have to work very, very carefully with laboratory models, various species, to be able to understand all the different effects that a single gene has, all the different ways that it interacts with other genes. Because no gene works alone; genes work in networks. And networks are hard to understand; networks are hard to predict. And so one has to have a lot of that information.

And all the experts agree that it’s too early. Some have called for a moratorium, some have called for self-restraint, but everyone agrees that we really don’t know enough to be trying this with humans.

What’s the status of the Earth Biogenome Project, which you’re co-chairing with former institute Director Harris Lewin (now at the University of California-Davis) and John Kress of the Smithsonian Institution?

There are several projects that have gotten underway as a result of this new initiative. The biggest one is the Darwin project in the United Kingdom. The Welcome Trust, a leading philanthropy in the U.K., has agreed to fund the sequencing of the genomes of all the species in the U.K. ... There are others that are under way in China and the U.S.

The first human genome cost $4.5 billion to sequence. We estimate that we can sequence all 2 million of the plants, animals and eukaryotic species (of microbes) for less than that, for $4 billion. The idea is that the technology has advanced so much in genome-sequencing and computing that we can do this.

And we can provide essentially a new library, a library of the blueprints of life, to provide the basis to extract knowledge for the discovery of new medicines, for the discovery of new foods, to understand better how organisms cope with changes in climate, to understand the evolution of life on this planet.

What’s the latest on colony collapse disorder, which has caused so many problems for bees?

We are at an encouraging point in what has been over a decade of real concern and dramatic losses in bee colonies.

There are four main culprits. They’re known as the four Ps: pesticides, parasites, pathogens and poor nutrition. So that’s the first insight. The second insight is that they interact in unpredictable ways.

So now we have the agenda: to understand how these four factors weaken bees and interact with each other to really create the problem.

I’ll give you an example: Fungicides, an important part of agriculture designed to kill fungi, not insects. When bees are healthy and they’re exposed to fungicides, no problem. If bees are stressed with a virus, or they’re nutritionally stressed, and they’re exposed to the fungicide, now there’s a problem.

So we need to understand those interactions, understand them at the molecular level. That’s of course how the honeybee genome comes into play. It’s such a useful road map and set of resources to be able to understand those interactions.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).