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New test offers speedy reading of genetic makeup

American scientists have ushered in an era of personalised genetics by reading an individual's entire genetic makeup in record time.

Researchers used a new technique called DNA barcoding to scan six feetof unravelled genetic material plucked from a single cell of a donor in twoweeks. The multimillion-dollar Human Genome Project, which produced thefirst draft of the human genetic code in 2000, took three years tocomplete.

The feat marks the beginning of a dramatic shift in medicine that willallow people to gaze upon the 6bn letters that form their unique biologicalblueprint for the first time.

David Schwartz, a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin,Madison, will describe the research at the Human Genome meeting in Helsinkitomorrow (JUNE3). Within three years, he believes his lab will have a testcapable of reading an entire genome within an hour for less than $100.

Researchers believe that individualised genetic printouts will radicallyimprove patients' lives by allowing doctors to give them personalisedadvice on their diets, lifestyles and medical check-ups.

Amid the strings of Gs, Ts, Cs and As that make up a human genome aresequences that reveal not just the colour of our eyes and hair, but wherewe came from and what chance we have of developing an endless variety ofdiseases and mental impairments. But Dr Schwartz admitted patients wouldneed counselling before they are shown the genetic hand they have beendealt.

``Some of this information is going to be hard to hear, but doctors willhave to interpret it in such a way that they can advise patients on therisks they face without them feeling condemned to a heart attack orAlzheimer's,'' he said.

By making genetic tests cheap and easily available, scientists hope tobuild unprecedented databases of genetic information that will revealprecisely the effects of specific genes not just on diseases, but onpersonal traits such as character and behaviour.

But moves to use genetic information from individuals could face stiffopposition from groups who fear the information could fall into the wronghands. ``The individual must have as much control over this information aspossible. We don't want to see it abused in any way, for example byinsurance companies,'' Dr Schwartz said.

To read a whole genome, Dr Schwartz plucks strands of DNA from a celland stretches them out on a sheet. He then squirts on an enzyme that cutsthe DNA whenever it encounters a specific sequence of letters. Studying thebarcode-like pattern produced by the cuts helps identify which letters, orDNA bases, are where.

Dr Schwartz's team produced six complete genome sequences using cellsfrom six different people which had been donated anonymously.