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An Introduction to Population Genomics

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  • An Introduction to Population Genomics

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    The Basics of Population Genomics
    Population genomics utilizes comprehensive DNA sequence analysis on a wide scale to reveal patterns in genetic variation. It provides valuable information that can be used to better understand ancestry, health, evolution, and more. In many cases, human population genomics studies are focused on diseases and healthcare with the primary objective of finding genetic biomarkers for diagnostics and therapeutics1.

    By focusing on large groups, population genomics differs from traditional genomics, which compares the genomes between individuals. Additionally, population genetics is a field that focuses on the frequency of genes in a population, while population genomics studies the entire genome to reveal broader patterns of genetic variation and evolution.


    Technological Advancements Driving Population Genomics
    Initially, the study of population genomics relied on methods like restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) and amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP), along with microarray technologies2. However, next-generation sequencing (NGS) has taken over as the dominant tool and has expanded the field immensely. The high-throughput capabilities of NGS have allowed scientists to study full-length genomes on a much larger scale, which is an obvious requirement for population genomics research. In addition, the decrease in sequencing costs and the consistent increase in sequencing throughput over the years have further accelerated this area of study.

    The value of population genomics research is heavily dependent on the accurate analysis and interpretation of the data generated. This process is particularly complex due to the massive genomic datasets that demand substantial computational resources and expertise. Moreover, the analysis requires standardized methods to ensure reliable and reproducible results. These issues are often more pronounced in non-model organisms, which typically lack reference genomes3. Fortunately, the computational challenges in population genomics have been addressed by the development of many advanced bioinformatics tools and algorithms. These tools are specifically designed and well-equipped to handle, interpret, and visualize the vast amounts of genomic data characteristic of population studies3,4,5.


    Applications of Population Genomics
    The field of population genomics has been filled with many innovative studies that provide important insights into different populations. For instance, a recent study on the genomic structural variation in Indigenous Australians identified and highlighted their unique patterns of genomic diversity6. The research uncovered a substantial number of large insertion-deletion variants and structural variants, many of which were previously unannotated and appear to be exclusive to Indigenous Australians. Research like this not only contributes to our understanding of human genomic diversity, but has the potential to improve genomic medicine for underrepresented groups.

    Taking a step back into the past, research on ancient Eurasian genomes helped provide insights into important human migrations during the Bronze Age7. The sequencing and analysis of 101 genomes from ancient individuals led researchers to discover that this era was marked by substantial population migrations and replacements that have shaped the demographic structures of modern Europe and Asia. These findings were used to help understand the spread of languages over the millennia as well as the prevalence of genetic traits such as skin pigmentation and lactose intolerance over time.


    Non-Human Applications
    Population genomics extends far beyond human research and plays a crucial role in studying a wide range of organisms. In particular, population genomics research on plants has been beneficial for investigating genetic variations and evolution in important crop species8. These methodologies offer significant insights into crop breeding and genetic research.

    Studies focused on the population genomics of bacteria have shown how they adapt to different hosts, which can also impact human health and agriculture9. By investigating the roles of genetic changes and mechanistic bases in this process, the generated insights can lead to better infection control strategies and limit the emergence of new pathogens.

    These approaches have also been critical in the study of animal populations and aiding in conservation and management efforts10. Researchers have employed these strategies for estimating population sizes, demographic histories, genetic diversity, and determining the genetic basis of diseases and adaptations in wildlife species.

    Furthermore, population genomics has been used to advance our comprehension of key diseases like malaria. Research in this subject has improved our knowledge of malaria biology, drug and insecticide resistance, and the genetic diversity of parasites (Plasmodium falciparum) and their associated vectors (Anopheles mosquitoes)11. The applications of this information can be used to guide malaria control strategies and interventions.


    Important Projects in Population Genomics
    Initiated in 2008, the 1000 Genomes Project was a foundational endeavor and a significant step forward for population genomics. In this international effort, genomes from 2,504 individuals spanning 26 diverse populations were sequenced and examined to uncover common genetic variations in humans12. The success of this project has led to the development of many others in the field. More recently, the All of Us Research Program13,theThree Million African Genomes (3MAG) project14, and various initiatives in the Middle East15, have contributed significantly to the advancement of population genomics.

    Another significant development in population genomics research comes from the recent release of half a million whole-genome sequences by the UK Biobank. This large-scale sequencing project had the goal of understanding the genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors related to diseases. Dating back to 2006, the UK Biobank's initiative involved recruiting 500,000 individuals to study diseases like dementia, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease16. The collection of these various datasets reaches beyond population genomics and can provide researchers with the multidisciplinary approach that is needed for insights into disease.


    Conclusion
    The field of population genomics has grown significantly since its inception, with continual advancements in sequencing and analysis technologies that have increased its accessibility and enabled more impactful discoveries. Between its cutting-edge projects and extensive research across diverse organisms, population genomics holds the potential to improve healthcare, conservation, and much more.

    References
    1. Jorde LB, Watkins WS, Bamshad MJ. Population genomics: a bridge from evolutionary history to genetic medicine. Hum Mol Genet. 2001;10(20):2199-2207. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/hmg/10.20.2199
    2. Luikart G, England PR, Tallmon D, Jordan S, Taberlet P. The power and promise of population genomics: from genotyping to genome typing. Nature Reviews Genetics. 2003;4(12):981-994. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/nrg1226
    3. Mirchandani CD, Shultz AJ, Gregg T, et al. A Fast, Reproducible, High-throughput Variant Calling Workflow for Population Genomics. Mol Biol Evol. 2024;41(1):msad270. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msad270
    4. Leroy T, Rougemont Q. Introduction to Population Genomics Methods. In: Besse P, ed. Molecular Plant Taxonomy: Methods and Protocols. Springer US; 2021:287-324. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-0716-0997-2_16
    5. Bourgeois YXC, Warren BH. An overview of current population genomics methods for the analysis of whole-genome resequencing data in eukaryotes. Mol Ecol. 2021;30(23):6036-6071. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15989
    6. Reis ALM, Rapadas M, Hammond JM, et al. The landscape of genomic structural variation in Indigenous Australians. Nature. 2023;624(7992):602-610. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06842-7
    7. Allentoft M, Sikora M, Sjögren K, et al. Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia. Nature. 2015;522(7555):167-172. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14507
    8. Yang F, Ma W, Ye C. The Application of Population Genomics in Crop Research. Agronomy. 2023;13(10). doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy13102480
    9. Sheppard SK, Guttman DS, Ross FJ. Population genomics of bacterial host adaptation. Nature Reviews Genetics. 2018;19(9):549-565. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41576-018-0032-z
    10. Hohenlohe PA, Chris FW, Rajora, Om P. Population genomics for wildlife conservation and management. Mol Ecol. 2021;30(1):62-82. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15720
    11. Neafsey DE, Taylor AR, MacInnis BL. Advances and opportunities in malaria population genomics. Nature Reviews Genetics. 2021;22(8):502-517. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41576-021-00349-5
    12. The 1000 Genomes Project Consortium. A global reference for human genetic variation. Nature. 2015;526(7571):68-74. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/nature15393
    13. The All of Us Research Program Investigators. The “All of Us” Research Program. N Engl J Med. 2019;381(7):668-676. doi:https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMsr1809937
    14. Wonkam A. Sequence three million genomes across Africa. Nature. 2021;590(7845):209-211. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00313-7
    15. Ateia H, Ogrodzki P, Wilson HV, et al. Population Genome Programs across the Middle East and North Africa: Successes, Challenges, and Future Directions. Biomed Hub. 2023;8(1):60-71. doi:https://doi.org/10.1159/000530619
    16. Callaway E. World’s biggest set of human genome sequences opens to scientists. Nature. 2023;624(7990):16-17. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-03763-3
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    About the Author

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    seqadmin Benjamin Atha holds a B.A. in biology from Hood College and an M.S. in biological sciences from Towson University. With over 9 years of hands-on laboratory experience, he's well-versed in next-generation sequencing systems. Ben is currently the editor for SEQanswers. Find out more about seqadmin

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