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AGBT 2020: A FIRST-TIME ATTENDEE'S TAKEAWAYS

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Advances in Genome Biology and Technology (AGBT) celebrated its 20th anniversary on a beautiful beach in Marco Island, Fla., in February. This was my first time attending AGBT, and I should have known that it was a different conference when a glass of champagne was handed to me as I walked into my hotel to check in. Opening speakers included NIH Director Francis Collins and molecular biologist Barbara Wold (fan girl shriek, but only internally because I’m introverted). The star-struck plenary talks were only the beginning of the night. We proceeded to have dinner on the beach with the B-52’s playing a live concert. I’ve always had a disdain for 80’s music, but there is something about living in that moment, eating spicy tuna rolls with your toes in the sand.

Back to business. At AGBT, 1,033 people joined together, from 26 countries, to collaborate and share their discoveries and breakthroughs in genomics. In my case, presenting a poster titled: “A Complete Automation and Reagent Workflow for Analysis of cfDNA: From Plasma to Variants.” I felt like I could puke. To be amongst the great scientists – some of them had written my college textbooks – was truly an honor.

One of the best things about being a scientist, is learning something new every day. At AGBT, you are learning something new every hour. Fascinating (and sometimes scary) topics included genetic tools and data for therapeutics, investigative genetic genealogy, technologies for reading and writing omes, pharmacogenomics and the NASA human research program.

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Three high-level summaries that don’t scratch the surface of the content within those four days, but I found very interesting included:

  1. Leroy Hood discussed 21st Century medicine where Providence Health & Services is combining whole genome sequencing (WGS), single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), gut microbiome, patient self-tracking, lifestyle monitoring, and lab work to determine individual polygenic risks for more than 100 diseases. Providence Health & Services’ goal is to sequence one million genomes in order to build a database to improve healthcare (called the One Million Patient Genome Project).
  2. A fascinating talk from Barbara Rae-Venter covered true crime with a little bit of data privacy concerns (Law and Order Theme Song here). Barbara is a pioneer in investigative genetic genealogy and is the director of the genetic testing company, Gene by Gene. Gene by Gene uses autosomal DNA (atDNA) to help adoptees find their birth relatives. However, this data can also be used to solve unsolved mysteries, as is the case with the Golden State Killer story.
  3. The NASA Human Research Program (HRP) investigates the risks and performance of human space travel. To bring it into perspective, Mars is approximately a six-month journey from Earth with no opportunity for re-supplying, and the communication delay with satellite phones is 20 minutes. Radiation exposure on Mars is 200-times that of Earth. HRP’s mission is to identify biomarkers and formulate mitigation strategies. Deep space stressors to human health and performance include radiation, altered gravity fields, isolation, confinement, hostile closed environments, and increasing distance from Earth.
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