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Former HEC chairman becomes first Pakistani for genome mapping

Dr Atta has become the first Muslim man with this distinction, while he is the third one among a list of renowned people in the world whose genomes have been mapped by scientists. PHOTO: FILE

The former chairman of the Higher Education Commission, Dr Attaur Rahman, has become the first Pakistani whose genome has been mapped by Pakistani scientists at a cost of $40,000 in just 10 months.

“This historical achievement has made him the first Pakistani and the first Muslim in the world history with a complete genomic mapping,” said Dr Muhammad Iqbal Choudhary, the director of the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences, on Thursday at the Dr Panjwani Centre for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research (PCMD). The work was done with scientists from the Beijing Genomic Institute.

Pakistan has also become the sixth country in the world to map the sequence of one of its nationals after the US, China, UK, Japan and India, he added with pride.

Dr Rahman’s genome shows that Pakistanis are more similar to Europeans than Chinese and Africans, said Assistant Professor Dr Muhammad Kamran Azim who headed the team of the Pak Genome Project. It also shows 200,000 specific sites unique to the Pakistani human and 80,000 sites common with the Indian human. However, this is not the exact representation of a Pakistani and facts may differ once they develop an average genome of Pakistan since the ‘nation’ is a mix of several ethnicities, he said.

An average genome, he explained, will be obtained by making a pool of all the characteristics, ie, the differences and similarities of all the people living in the country.

The decision to choose Dr Atta ur Rahman was a conscious one as he is not only the most prominent scientific figure in Pakistan but one whose ancestors spent almost three centuries in Multan and then moved a hundred years back to Delhi.

Human Genome mapping is the process of producing a sequence of DNA that makes our genes. It holds all our genetic instructions i.e. hereditary information, and provide the “genetic code” that allows our bodies to develop, grow, and function.

Thus the knowledge of a ‘nation’s’ genetic code can be used to see what diseases are common to that people so that it can be avoided, said Dr Choudhary. “It is also a source of immense national pride,” he said emotionally. The first Human genome mapping project involved 18 countries and started in 1990. The genome of the first American was mapped at a cost of six billion dollars over ten years.

However as the genome research was carried out on individuals from the North American eastern coast and western Europe, criticism soon rose that it only represented a western human instead of the whole world. China stepped in and mapped its first human. The UK, India and Japan followed suit.

The Pakistan Genome Project cost was shared equally by Pakistan and China. The machines were in Beijing and the knowledge was supplied by Pakistan. While we have the same technology, our set is so small that it would have taken our machines a hundred years to complete the sequencing of three billion base pairs, he said. This is not to say that Pakistan is a novice in the field. It has already submitted the genome of the mango chloroplast and date palm chloroplast to the international database.

The complete sequence will be published in the prestigious scientific journals Nature and Nature Biotechnology. The complete data will also be submitted to an American databank and will be accessible to everyone, said Dr Kamran Azim. He added that the main goal of the centre now is to attach the same extensive technology to the PCMD and launch the project of mapping of an average Pakistani, which desperately needs funding.

Dr Yong Zhang, the head of genomics at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, was on the team.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2011.