Human genome project that took 13 years and 2.7 billion dollars to unravel all 1.6 GB data that human DNA is, remains the largest collaborative project ever undertaken by the global community. It is almost symbolic that India was not part of it, as even today, we have failed to understand its enormity.
From 13 years and 2.7 billion dollars, whole genome sequencing has come down to 50 hours and 1000 dollars today, indicating that floodgates of genetics are about to open.
This means that researchers will soon have access to huge amount of genetic data. So without requiring any creative genius, and just by doing intense data-mining using fast computers; researchers are going to find cures for diseases and cheaper ways of making things by just locating the causative gene/s. In next decade, we are likely to see cure of cancers or make plastic-eating bacteria through genetic engineering. Once we open Pandora’s Box of DNA, possibilities are endless.
While the world is embarking on this exciting journey, India seems to be lacking the wanderlust to explore the uncharted territories opening up in genetics.
Strangely, wanderlust is a quality that is actually found linked with DNA. DRD4-R7 is a genetic variation branded as wanderlust gene, as those having a version of DRD4 gene with 7 repeats are found to be adventurous novelty-seekers and risk-takers.
In simple terms, gene is a piece of data that gets translated into a protein having some function in the body. It being a data-string, it often ends up getting repeated a number of times in the genome, generating variants of slightly different types. DRD4 can be seen repeated from twice (R2) to eleven (R11) time; with R2, R4 and R7 being more common variants.
The R7 version is intriguing, as it is a recent increase (from the most common R4) in DRD4 repeats and yet it is found in 20% population. As it managed such a fast proliferation in such a short period, it is likely to have something special to contribute to the success of those bearing it.
DRD4-R7 appears to affect dopamine sensitivity of brain, resulting into increase in novelty-seeking exploratory behavior. This trait could have benefited its bearers as exploratory tendency often leads to new discoveries. So the R7 version gave humanity its explorers that pushed geographical, and possibly knowledge, boundaries.
For any Indian becoming aware of the traits of R7 type, the first annoying question (that one can guess the answer of) would be about its demographic distribution. So, is there a genetic reason for us to not get excited by the new advancements in genetics?
Though there is no serious study conducted about prevalence of R7 in India, world data puts Asia at the bottom, while R7 is far more common in western world, a pattern that coincides well with west leading in exploration-based advancement.
More importantly, R7 seems to have deeper benefits, as it is also linked with longevity with robust health, making it clear that the greatest examiner of life on Earth, i.e. evolution, also prefers risk takers.
Though the above tale of R7 has scientific validation, we also know that human life is not just a manifestation of DNA. There is a lot more to all of us than just our genes. We Indians may be less predisposed to risk-taking, but once we learn about its benefits, we can always transcend our genes and imbibe it as a virtue.
Becoming adventurous in exploring the knowledge landscape is the real need of the hour for India. As genetics is, unarguably, the biggest thing that happened to life on Earth, India must join the world in pushing the envelope.