18 March 2014 - Knowing the genetic information (also known as genome) of an organism helps scientists to better understand pathogens in order to control diseases. For example, in order to create a targeted vaccine for an animal disease such as Avian influenza or Foot-and-mouth disease, it is necessary to identify the lineage of the virus to reveal the type of vaccine needed.
Identifying the genetic code is done in two steps: i) a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test will amplify specific regions in the genome; and ii) these PCR products will be sequenced to unravel the exact genetic code. High tech equipment, called sequencing machines or sequencers, is needed to sequence pathogens. These sequencers require a high level of maintenance and are relatively expensive. As a result, most laboratories in developing countries can conduct PCR tests and find out if a virus is present or absent in a sample, and yet they are often unable to go further and sequence the genome.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with support from the IDENTIFY project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will facilitate the access to DNA sequencing for laboratories that have no access to PCR sequencers. FAO signed an agreement with a commercial partner which will perform the sequencing. An online system was set up so that laboratories can order sequencing services and submit their samples directly to the company. FAO has recently communicated the availability of these services to ten laboratories in sub-Saharan Africa. FAO headquarters together with its joint FAO/IAEA division has already provided training to these laboratories to ensure the quality of their PCR products before sending them to a commercial partner for sequencing.
Given the importance of using the same protocols to reach standardized results, FAO will soon offer a manual with 20 protocols to identify and sequence key pathogens to the laboratories in Africa. Furthermore, if the laboratories need technical assistance to interpret their sequencing results, FAO can put them in touch with FAO Reference Centres.
FAO has requested that the laboratory users release their sequences in the public domain within six months. Publishing the sequencing results online will ensure that epidemiologists and virologists in neighbouring countries are able to compare results and harmonize their control strategies (e.g. using the same vaccines) for diseases based on the sequencing results.