Tracking and monetizing the genome of human mobility

Big Data Evangelist, IBM

People wander where they will. Humanity’s ability to pick up and go whenever, wherever and however it wants has always been a defining feature of our species. Now we’ve set our sights on planting our footprints on other planets.

Mobility defines the human race. Just as our smartphone follows our personal peregrinations throughout the day, our genome essentially tracks the dynamic record of our ancestors’ migrations, explorations, settlements, conquests, capitulations and assimilations. we analyze our genomic signature against written records, what we often find is the deeper ancestral-mobility history that no one considered worth noting in any medium. Perhaps your great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents were too busy trying to survive to realize that the mundane details of their couplings, comings and goings may have residual value to future generations trying to anchor themselves.

Automated genomic analysis is a prime key for unlocking the historical record that human mobility has left within each of us. By now, we’re all familiar with the genomic analytics studies that have confirmed the broad swaths of human migration out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago. As this recent study of the genome of the people of Great Britain illustrates, the genetic code can even pinpoint migrations within a narrower geographic scope in relatively recent historical times.

Clearly, this ancestral-mobility trace is of interest to more than historians and evolutionary geneticists. In terms of practicality, life sciences applications clearly are in the forefront. Human mobility has permeated our genome with many inherited diseases and other physiological vulnerabilities, while at the same time giving many people DNA-encoded immunities, resistances and other strengths they may not fully realize. The secret to human longevity, for example, may be rooted in our DNA.

Genomic analytics is where we map out the evolutionary contribution of human mobility to our molecular substrate. Or, in those rare branches of the human family that have remained more or less stationary and isolated for long stretches—such as the Icelandic—their relative genomic homogeneity has made them a primary control population for understanding mobility’s influence on everyone else’s changing DNA signature.

However, it can be misleading to think that large institutions are the only ones who might benefit directly from mining our DNA. Potentially, any of us might “crowdsource” our own genomic data and, to a greater or lesser degree, profit from the insights others gain from it. At least, that’s the possibility I extrapolated from a recent article describing a new crowdsourced, online community that would enable people to “share data about their genomes, gut bacteria and other biological data with scientists and researchers.” Supported by the Knight Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Open Humans Network’s goal is to "democratize" valuable access to this data. In other words, the intent is to give individuals the option of determining who specifically may profit from this unique data.

The human genome is valuable data outside the context of any medical diagnostics that may save lives. As we’ve seen, the highly individualized record of your ancestral genomic mobility is of considerable practical value to others.

Perhaps the primary party who should be profiting from your genome is you. I read “personal genomic data monetization” into this “open” and “crowdsourcing” pitch. On one level, it’s like choosing to sell blood to a blood bank. But on another level, the big difference is that our genome is data that can be “transfused” into a practically infinite range of uses, not simply into one fortunate recipient. Likewise, the analytics that may be performed on it are practically unlimited, especially if your genome is correlated with many other people’s genomes.

Genomic analytics is an application domain in which IBM has made steadily deepening investments. Our principal initiatives in this area include:

One of the most recent bits of news relevant to genomic analytics was the April 2015 announcement that the IBM Health Cloud and Watson cognitive computing capabilities will support health data entered by customers in iOS apps using Apple's ResearchKit and HealthKit frameworks. The move, which complements IBM’s new Watson Health business unit, will arm medical researchers with a secure, open data storage solution, as well as access to IBM’s most sophisticated data analytics capabilities. Apple's HealthKit enables developers to create consumer health apps designed to give users a more comprehensive way to manage their health and fitness. HealthKit can be used to create apps that monitor health behaviors and help encourage users to adhere to their treatment plan. Participants who opt-in to apps using ResearchKit can also contribute their health information to precision medicine initiatives that draw on genomic data gathered through other methods.

What’s encouraging about this development is that it gives the average person more tools for crowdsourcing their personal health data, if they wish. By the same token, it gives us the opportunity to participate in large scientific studies that can use our anonymized data to benefit all of humanity.

Learn more about the new Apple and IBM solutions surrounding genomic analytics.