Finding opportunity in understudied genes

An online tool aims to boost research on understudied, disease-linked genes by counteracting scientists’ bias toward well-known genes.

Image credit: PublicDomainPictures (CC0)

Modern techniques for studying human genetics have helped to identify 20,000 protein-encoding genes in the human genome. Yet scientists have not studied most of them, including genes linked to human diseases in genome wide studies. For example, about 44% of the genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease have never been mentioned in the title or summary of a scientific article. Why so many health-linked genes have yet to be examined is unclear.

Many genetic studies instead focus on genes already studied before the Human Genome Project mapped the entire genome in 2003. There are many reasons why scientists may ignore potentially disease-causing genes. They may feel that well-studied genes are safer bets or more likely to result in high-profile publications. Or they may lack the tools to study less well-characterized genes.

Richardson et al. analyzed the scientific literature for clues on why so many genes are being ignored by scientists. The analysis included hundreds of articles that used a wide range of genetic techniques, including genome-wide association studies, RNA sequencing, and gene editing tools to scour the genome for disease-linked genes. It revealed that scientists abandon the study of many genes early in the research process and identify 33 reasons why. Contrary to scientists’ fears, Richardson et al. show that reports on understudied genes often garner more attention than studies on well-known genes.

Richardson et al. used their results to create a downloadable tool called “Find My Understudied Genes (FMUG)” to help scientists identify understudied genes and counteract bias toward more well-studied genes. The app may help scientists make informed decisions about which understudied genes to research. If the tool helps boost investigation of understudied genes, it may help speed up progress towards understanding human genetics and how various genes may contribute to diseases.