Georgia Tech Facilitates Bioinformatics Push in Colombia

Science and technology may not be one’s first thoughts at the mention of Colombia, the Latin American country that is emerging from more than half a century of armed conflict. Much about Colombia is lost in stereotypes, including its robust educational system, according to King Jordan. “Colombia has consistently defied my expectations arising from what we hear in the news,” he says.  

An associate professor in the School of Biology and the director of Georgia Tech’s Bioinformatics Graduate Program, Jordan is poised to contribute to the country’s education and development of a knowledge-based economy. For six weeks beginning on June 20, 2016, he will conduct a Fulbright-supported workshop at Universidad Tecnológica del Chocó (UTech) to train Colombians in the use of databases and computer programs to analyze genomic information. He will also help develop a curriculum for a post-Bachelor specialization in bioinformatics.

Bioinformatics is where computer science and biology intersect. Scientists in the field develop and apply computational tools to address fundamental biological problems. Bioinformatics analyses of human genome sequences can uncover individuals’ genetic ancestry, as well as traits such as predisposition to  disease. At Georgia Tech, Jordan uses bioinformatics to investigate the relationship between human genetic variation and health.

This summer trip continues Jordan’s years-long collaboration with Colombia and other Latin America countries as they strive to build national capacity for bioinformatics research.

Latin American populations have a mixture of ancestry from Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and Colombia’s ancestry is particularly diverse, Jordan says. The genetic mixing that occurred in the region over the past 500 years has created genome sequences that, Jordan says, “are novel in containing combinations of ancestry-specific alleles that never previously existed on the same genomic background.  We want to understand the health-related implications of the emergence of this novel set of admixed genomes in Latin America.”

Colombia has about 11 million inhabitants of African descent, making it the country with the third highest population of African descendants in the Americas, after Brazil and the U.S.  Located on the Pacific Coast, the state of Chocó has a uniquely African genetic heritage with admixture from Europe and the Americas, Jordan says.  

The people of Chocó have an intense interest in both genetic ancestry and predisposition to disease, says Miguel Medina. The UTech professor of biology first met Jordan in 2014 at a conference where Jordan presented bioinformatics analyses of genomes from inhabitants of Medellín, who are predominantly of European descent. Medina invited Jordan to do similar work on the inhabitants of Chocó, 94% of whom are of African descent. To help establish bioinformatics formally in UTech, Medina and Jordan applied for a Fulbright grant to support Jordan’s visit this summer as a Fulbright Specialist in Biology Education.

Despite a number of studies on the genetic ancestry of Colombians, little research has focused on the Afro-Colombian population.  Characterizing the genetic heritage of Chocó would a fuller picture of the scope of ancestry in Latin American populations, Jordan says, as well as reveal connections between genetic ancestry and health.

Working with the National Institutes of Health, Jordan and Medina have built a database of genomic sequences from samples provided by 100 inhabitants of Chocó. This pilot project was funded by the Denning Global Engagement Seed Fund, from Georgia Tech’s Office of the Vice-Provost for International Initiatives. That funding flowed from Georgia Tech’s strategic goal to expand its global footprint, Jordan explains. However, he emphasizes, the samples and the data generated by that funding belong to the people of Chocó.  

For data analysis, UTech has formed a collaborative research partnership with BIOS, Colombia’s Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology; Georgia Tech; and the PanAmerican Bioinformatics Institute. Called ChocoGen, the project aims discover and characterize the genetic heritage of the people of Chocó.  ChocoGen researchers are analyzing the genomic sequences of donors from Chocó to characterize their genetic ancestry; the quantity and nature of admixture between ancestral populations; and the possible relationship between ancestry, admixture, and genetic determinants of health and disease.

Over the course of six weeks this summer, Jordan will be training a diverse group of Colombian bioinformatics enthusiasts, teaching, and developing curriculum. And with Medina, Jordan will meet with government leaders to secure funding for future research and development in bioinformatics. His hope is not only to set the stage for a new research activity to take root but also to ensure that it grows strong.

Author: 
Scotty Smith