Science at Sanger, from Covid-19 to all of life on Earth

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Upon hearing that the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton was to be named after him, Fred Sanger said: “It had better be good.”

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The Wellcome Sanger Institute - Credit: DAN ROSS / WELLCOME SANGER INSTITUTE

Fred Sanger was the double Nobel-prize winning scientist who invented an early method for sequencing DNA. Founded in 1993 to lead UK efforts in the Human Genome Project, the Sanger Institute is now home to one of the largest and most advanced DNA sequencing facilities in the world.

It took 13 years to sequence the first human genome. Now, DNA is sequenced at a rate equivalent to one human genome every 3.5 minutes.

Among the tens of thousands of genomes sequenced at Sanger are those of people affected by rare genetic diseases. Analyses of the sequences has led to diagnoses for thousands of children with previously undiagnosed, rare conditions. The diagnoses mean families can access support, and in some cases, treatments.

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Caused by a disordered and dysregulated genome, cancer is another area of focus. Institute researchers have helped discover genes that cause cancer, and new therapies for previously untreatable cancers.

Even when DNA isn’t the direct cause of a condition, it has a role to play - everything from IBD to heart disease is influenced by the genome. By sequencing individual cells’ DNA, researchers aim to to understand and treat these common illnesses.

But Sanger doesn’t just sequence human genomes. Every living thing is built from a different arrangement of the same four letters of DNA code. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and malaria parasites are intensely studied. Together with partners in countries affected by tropical diseases, Sanger researchers analyse genome sequences to understand how pathogens evolve, spread, and can be tackled.

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In a new project, scientists are mapping the DNA of 60,000 UK species for the first time. The work is part of a global mission to sequence all complex life on Earth. The data will help scientists who are working to preserve the planet’s biodiversity.

This year (2020) has seen the Institute pivot to sequence thousands of SARS-CoV-2 virus samples. The aim is to help trace the chains of transmission of Covid-19. In April, the genome sequence data helped Cambridge researchers identify how the virus was spreading between dialysis patients at a local hospital, and further transmission was halted.

Researchers are also monitoring genetic changes in the virus – this will support public health agencies, giving them vital insights as they introduce measures to control the outbreak.

It has been 27 years since opening, and Institute staff hope they have done Fred Sanger proud.