DNA blueprint

With a genetics degree, one can gain a diverse set of transferable skills which can translate to multiple careers

June 08, 2019 01:21 pm | Updated 01:21 pm IST

Opportunities abound  Explore them all.

Opportunities abound Explore them all.

It is an exciting time in the field of genetics. The ability to routinely sequence the genome of any organism — where the complete DNA “blueprint” is uncovered, has revolutionised genetic research. What was once a costly and time-consuming endeavour, is now affordable and accessible; a human genome can be sequenced in a single day for approximately $1,000. Another ground breaking advance is the development of the CRISPR gene-editing method, which can modify or repair DNA, and thus has the potential to revolutionise genetic engineering. These innovations have numerous implications in scientific research, agriculture and medicine.

Recently, the 1,00,000 genomes UK Government project, the largest study of its kind conducted till date, has been completed where the genomes of 80,000 individuals, in addition to 20,000 cancer genomes, have been sequenced. Such information can influence diagnosis, prognosis, risk and treatment of many diseases, ushering in an era of personalised medicine. Similarly, a full understanding of plant genomes, and how we can engineer them, allows us to tackle the global challenge of food security, and will inform future strategies to tackle drought resistance, plant growth and pest control.

Degree benefits

So, how might a typical genetics degree equip students to tackle these important global issues? Genetics spans multiple disciplines from conservation biology and animal behaviour to molecular genetics and biochemistry. Genetics degrees will, therefore, vary in their focus, especially in the final year, where content will likely reflect the research expertise of the teaching staff and the specific interests of the students. However, fundamental to all programmes will be the basic study of genes: how they are inherited, evolved, function, and how we can study them. One approach in genetics is to study how genes change over time such that organisms can optimise their survival in diverse contexts. Students may also learn about the complete tool kit, including CRISPR. In case of genetic engineering, this might involve adapting plants so that they are more resilient and can feed more people.

A major component of genetics revolves around understanding the role that genes play in health, disease and ageing. Thousands of rare human disorders result from mutation of a single gene. In many diseases, such as cancer and dementia, the underlying genetic changes are more complex, and not yet fully understood; they may result from multiple mutations or from abnormalities in the chromosomes, the structures that house our genes. Undergraduates studying genetics will gain an understanding of how these arise, how they can be diagnosed and treated.

The future

A genetics degree provides a broad overview of the molecular biosciences together with high-level subject knowledge. This can directly lead to jobs in agricultural, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, or into academic research. Another big job market for graduates is medical and healthcare setting with potential roles in clinical genetics, genetic counselling and diagnostics. The huge increase in production of genetic data means that we need many more people to study it; genomics and bioinformatics is thus going to increase enormously in the coming years.

Additionally, students gain a diverse set of transferable skills which can translate to many careers. The ability to critically analyse research data and work confidently with numbers is appealing to employers from many sectors, including accounting, law and consulting.

The writer teaches in Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at University of Sheffield, the U.K.

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