Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Genome mapped for a Pakistani: Now what?

by Salman Hameed

It was announced recently that Dr. Ataur Rahman has become the first Pakistani to have his genome mapped (tip from Zakir Thaver and Farid Alvie). Well - thats great. But then the news items regarding this were a bit odd and I was struck by interesting political and cultural undertones. Let me extract a few of these here. For example, there was an emphasis way up front about this being the first Muslim, and the first Muslim state to have done this mapping. Now technically, this is a bit more complicated as the mapping was done in Beijing (in collaboration with an institute in Karachi). Nevertheless, this is a nice reflection of Pakistan's identity issues: Pakistani first or a Muslim first? This is all the more interesting, as the genome story is framed around being a Pakistani.

When I read that Pakistan has become only the sixth nation to have the genome mapped for one of its citizens, I was pretty sure that India must have been one of the countries. Indeed, the list includes US, UK, China, Japan, India. This by in itself is not a bad thing. Heck - competition can lead to a lot of healthy developments - and having a mapped genome may not be a bad thing. However, sometimes it is just for the sake of competition and only for chest thumping. I remember that Pakistan got a research station in Antarctica in the early 1990s, pretty much because India had one there. I'm actually okay with this kind of research if is linked with the research infrastructure of the country. The same is true for genome mapping. I hope that the Pakistan-China genomic collaboration is more than Pakistan supplying a human specimen and China conducting the sequencing (after all, it did cost $40,000 - not a lot of money, but still not pennies either).

The other interesting point is the reporting of the meaning of a Pakistani genome? This, as one can imagine, cuts into political and cultural factors as well. For example, Dawn puts it like this:
The remarkable achievement of the first genome mapping of any Pakistani is just like opening the software or book of life of a nation.
And one of the Pakistani collaborators brings in the uniqueness of Pakistanis:
"The important work will pave the way for research on heredity diseases, evolution and the over all genetic make up of Pakistanis which now hold a unique genetic pattern as a nation."
Now of course, this is one individual, and his particular background plays a pivotal role in here. I can imagine many Pakistanis who may have no significant differences from individuals from India - and at the same having large difference with genome of some other Pakistanis. After all, 1947 (and also in the 50s and 60s) saw a large-scale exchange of population between the two countries, and we know of significant ethnic variations within Pakistan. The Express Tribune did take a whack at this topic:
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.
One last thing: The choice of Attaur Rahman is an interesting one. I know he is an establishment guy, who also happens to be a polarizing figure in the intellectual circles of Pakistan. He was the chairman of Higher Education Commission (HEC) and at one point the minister of science & technology. But he has also been peddling nonsense about some issues. In particular, he has some bizarre conspiracy views about the cause of the 2005 earthquake and the recent floods in Pakistan. This is not just a small misunderstanding - but rather some of it is fundamental misunderstanding of physics and conspiracy views driven by an ideology (see my detailed post on this: A Prominent Pakistani Scientist is Stoking Conspiracy Fires). This craziness aside, I don't think there is any problem with the choice of Dr. Attaur Rahman for the mapping project.

Who is next? Abdul Sattar Edhi?


Naveed Ejaz said...

I read the article too and it left me slightly uncomfortable. Given how far gene sequencing technologies have come, I guess my uncertainty stems from the fact that the details involving which proportion of work was carried out in Pakistan as opposed to in Beijing are not disclosed.

The choice of Dr Atta is certainly controversial. As an academic he does project a profile of self-aggrandizement, and this particular incident does seem to fall within the same pattern. He recently had a spate of op-eds in the Tribune where he listed off the achievements in higher education during his tenure, with very little mention of the constructive criticism that had been raised against his policies by the like of Hoodbhoy.

Akbar said...

'I know he is an establishment guy...'
Just like someone else knows Hoodbhoy is on 'CIA payroll'.
Is there an end for these conspiracy ideas?

Salman Hameed said...

Naveed - my feelings precisely. But I actually don't mind Ata being mapped. Somebody has to be mapped and it is hard these days to find uncontroversial figures. Ultimately, some volunteer is needed - and Ata is fine.

This is not about conspiracy theories. In the past 10-15 years, Ata has been the minister of science & technology, chairman of the HEC, and has been the head of Comstech. These are all major posts in or related to the government (and no - he hasn't been a rebel in the government either). He is part of the establishment (I'm not ascribing a value with this statement). This is what I meant by that.

Akbar said...

To be honest, I DO mind Dr Attaur Rehman 'volunteering' himself for the genome. I am pretty sure he didn't himself pay for it. Then if it was a randomly picked sample from a general Pakistani population, it would have a better scientifoc standing as a representative Pakistani genome sample. Actually it reminds me of the NASDAQ screen debacle for self promotion by Pakistani officials not too long ago. Here in this case too we missed a chance of knowing the details of a represtative Pakistani genome. I like Dr Attaur Rahman for most of his achievements for the country, except for some of his bizarre personal ideas, but here I would try to be honest. His credibility in my personal view got eclipsed by this self promoton. I wish if he had hand picked the most representative Pakistani gene sample from common population, it would have been another jewel in the crown of his achievements, but alas, what a waste!

Salman Hameed said...

Actually there could have been an interesting reality show built on this premise. Choose an "average Pakistani". Who is an average Pakistani? A tough question, but then let the viewers decide. Along side with this, they could have explained the genome and other aspects of biology, and science in general.

Akbar said...

Yes for a single sample, it is a tough job to exemplify the 'average Pakistani', based on the wide variations of ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups making up the nation. One way is to make a list of general anatomical and biochemical trends in varied population groups and working out the population group that has the maximum number of the common traits found in different groups under study. That is why I said that if Dr Rahman (or anyone for that matter) had started the project of working out to find the population group most representative of multicultural Pakistan, and then get a single sample from it as Pakistan's representative genome, that would have been a nice contribution. May be a scientific approach would work better than a 'reality show' run by one of our crap media channels ;-). Anyways, just a view point from a mediocre like me.

Ali said...

Hi Akbar,

"Then if it was a randomly picked sample from a general Pakistani population, it would have a better scientifoc standing as a representative Pakistani genome sample."

Considering that the Pakistani genome can be anything between white European and black African, why do you think Dr Atta is a bad choice?
Surely there CANNOT be a genome based on which alone anyone can be identified as a Pakistani.
Why do you think your "random guy" would represent Pakistani genome better that Dr Atta?

Akbar said...

You missed reading my third comment.

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