It’s been several weeks now since I started working at 23andMe, a personal genomics company located in Mountain View, CA. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also been several weeks since I last blogged. The transition hasn’t been difficult, but it did take some getting used to, mentally and physically. I mean, leaving for work by 8:30am? Regular hours? Commuting??
Ok, so I really have nothing to complain about. 8:30 isn’t that early, and I could shave half an hour off each end of my commute if I didn’t choose to take advantage of bike-friendly roads, good weather, and a company-sponsored free train pass (OMG benefits!?). All in all, things are pretty much fantastic. The work environment is friendly, flexible, and laid-back; we have plenty of food and drink to keep us fueled throughout the day, and regular workouts/yoga if we need to get fired up or mellowed down (and to keep the “Free Food 15″ at bay). Plus, personal genomics is a super interesting and rapidly evolving industry, so there’s really never a dull moment.
So what is personal genomics, anyway? We’ve known for a while that genetics – the sequence of DNA inside our cells – plays an important role in our form and functioning. Many diseases are caused by changes in DNA (often in genes, parts of DNA that code for proteins) that alter the normal functioning of cells, though not all genetic differences lead to negative changes. (Genetics can also tell us about ancestry – who is related to whom and the history of populations – but I won’t be addressing that in this post.) Where it gets personal is when you apply it to individuals, such as when someone gets a genetic test to determine whether they have or are at risk of developing or passing on a particular disease. Where it gets genomics is when we use high-throughput technologies to do what is essentially thousands of genetics tests at once. Put them together, and you get personal genomics.
How do we know what genetic “pieces” correspond to what conditions or diseases? The general strategy is to compare the DNA of a whole bunch of individuals that have that condition (cases) to a whole bunch of individuals that don’t (controls). As long as both groups are similar save for their case-control status, any significant genetic differences between them should have something to do with that condition. We call this a genetic association.
It turns out that there are millions of single locations in the human genome where the exact sequence of the DNA might differ between two people, and these places, called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, can contribute to differences we can observe, such as whether you flush when you drink alcohol or how easily you put on weight. 23andMe personal genomics kit determines what your sequence is for a representative subset of SNPs. Many are already known to be associated with certain conditions, and new research is being done every day to uncover more and more of these associations.
So what exactly do I do at 23andMe? My official job title is “Scientist, Content Curation”. Curation, I’ve found, is not very familiar to most people. Most people probably know that there is such a thing as a museum curator, but might not know what they do. Hardly anyone has ever heard of scientific curation. (And I thought explaining what I was studying as a grad student was hard! Biomedical informatics, anyone?)
But it’s really not that complicated. The essence of curation is almost always the same: the selection, acquisition, and management of content. What that content is differs depending on the field – for example, an art curator might look for and organize artwork for exhibition in a gallery, while a curator in the “Ancient Civilizations” department of a museum may be in charge of acquiring, managing, and presenting archaeological artifacts.
In science, curation involves organization of scientific knowledge and data. An area where this has been especially important is the life sciences, as the amount of information being generated by high-throughput experiments, large-scale projects, and scholarly publishing has skyrocketed. In order to manage this information and render it useful to others, the field of biocuration was born. Any database that organizes scientific knowledge – UniProt (the Universal Protein resource), FlyBase (database for that very important model organism, Drosophila), PharmGKB (a database focused on how genes and drugs interact), etc – depends on curators to keep the information up to date and easy to use.
And so it is with 23andMe. The genetic testing kit is one part of the product, but the other part is information – what knowledge is there about associations between the SNPs on our platform and health traits or conditions? What does your particular data mean? The science is far from exhausted on this subject, and in order to stay up to date with the research, 23andMe spends a lot of effort on curating the scientific literature for new genetic associations and presenting the information on our website for our customers.
Day to day, this means that we keep track of papers recently published in scientific journals, skim through to find ones that may have promising findings, and then vet these more thoroughly to see if they pass our stringent scientific standards. If they do, we extract the bits of information we need and put the bits together in reports that will eventually become part of the content on the website. It’s a job that definitely benefits from an organized system and an eye for detail – as well as a sense of curiosity.
After three weeks on the job, I think I’m starting to get the hang of the day to day work. Since my work is even more directly tied to the literature than it was as a graduate student in academia, I’m also developing an enhanced awareness of issues surrounding scientific publishing – those related to standardization and metadata, publication bias towards positive results, and closed vs. open access. The hardest aspect of transitioning from academia to industry hasn’t been the regular schedule, or the work environment, or the work itself, it’s been getting used to being on the other side of the pay-wall of scientific journals.
But that’s a rant for another time. ;)