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The genetic codebreaker unravelling the answers

PUBLISHED: 17:35 27 November 2019 | UPDATED: 17:47 27 November 2019

"Along with climate change, antibiotic resistance is probably one of the two major threats to humanity," says EI director Professor Neil Hall. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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The answers to some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs yet to come - like overcoming antibiotic resistance - lies in DNA. At Norwich Research Park, computer scientists at the Earlham Institute are racing to crack the code. Institute director Professor Neil Hall explains how.

Using supercomputers, computer scientists at Earlham Institute are able to read DNA in just one minute that, a decade ago, would have taken a whole year to read.   Picture: ANTHONY CULLENUsing supercomputers, computer scientists at Earlham Institute are able to read DNA in just one minute that, a decade ago, would have taken a whole year to read. Picture: ANTHONY CULLEN

Each month, changemakers working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. This month, Earlham Institute's Neil Hall explains the 'instrinsic beauty' of genetics. Read more stories in the Norwich Research Park Lifechangers series.

In what ways is Earlham Institute (EI) working to tackle some of the greatest scientific challenges facing us today?

Along with climate change, antibiotic resistance is probably one of the two major threats to humanity. It's why doctors try to make sure that antibiotics are always the last line of defence.

So, one way to solve the problem is through finding new antibiotics - there's a large effort going on in that area at the moment. But the reality is that any new antibiotic will come up against antibiotic resistance within the population further down the line. The work we're doing is about understanding what causes that resistance. We know that antibiotics in farming is one factor pushing resistance through the population, via the food chain, but understanding how it evolves is really important too.

What approach are you taking to uncover the answers?

Most of Earlham Institute's work is underpinning the discoveries that other scientists can then build on. Discovery science is a bit like the Hubble Space Telescope or the Large Hadron Collider, or even Darwin's Beagle voyage - it's about observing without prior expectations or a hypothesis and seeing what happens.

Instead of growing our own crops or going out in the field, we work in labs with supercomputers to analyse complex datasets. It's a pretty new field, and it means that a lot of the people working here are young too. Right now, one of our our biggest project involves looking at over 10,000 strains of Salmonella to try to understand, among other things, the difference between drug resistant and non-drug resistant bacteria, and which genes might be responsible.

What's your role at the Earlham Institute?

I'm the director of the institute, which involves running my own lab but also guiding our strategy as we grow. The institute was set up 10 years ago to provide genomics analyses - the field of biology focusing on the structure, function, evolution, mapping and editing of genomes (a genome is an organism's complete set of DNA) - for the whole of the UK.

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Why is the study of DNA so important?

Most of what we do is based on DNA. Everything living has DNA - from viruses through to elephants - DNA contains our genetic code which is based on four letters in a string and the order of those letters determines how cells develop and what functions they perform.

We have six billion letters in every cell of our body. The ultimate goal in biology is to be able to read DNA and understand what something looks like and how it behaves. That might sound simple, but it'll lead to all kinds of breakthroughs. We're making progress - as an institute it now takes us just one minute to read the same amount of DNA which, a decade ago, would have taken a whole year to read.

Right now, if I looked at your DNA sequence, I probably wouldn't know much beyond things like your sex, your eye colour and maybe a potential to be lactose intolerant. I wouldn't know what you look like, your potential levels of intelligence or whether you're likely to be good at football. However, we can now look at a Salmonella DNA sequence and start to understand what drug resistance it has, or what would happen if a person was infected with it. Fundamentally, that's what we want to be able to do for all life.

What first sparked your interest in science?

I'm dyslexic; at school, science was always something I felt I could do well at. Dyslexia wasn't a recognised condition then, so other subjects were very tough for me. But I was fascinated by genetics and the rules of inheritance - I thought there was a certain intrinsic beauty to it. I think we started learning about flower colours and how many tortoiseshell kittens you might get from a non-tortoiseshell and a tortoiseshell cat. That's what hooked me in.

What's it like working at Norwich Research Park?

Being on the park gives us the critical mass to be internationally competitive - if the other institutes and the university weren't here, it would be impossible.

I compare working here to football teams; to compete internationally you need international talent. One of the great things about working in science is that you get to interact with all these different cultures and interesting people with different expertise from all over the globe, who are all fascinated by the same things as you.

To keep up with Earlham Institute's latest research, visit www.earlham.ac.uk

READ MORE stories from Norwich Research Park Lifechangers here.

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