Using DNA as a Disease Detective
Solving an outbreak of infectious disease—figuring out how it began and how it spread through a community—isn’t easy. Yet every year, Canada experiences outbreaks of communicable diseases. Often, their origins and transmission remain a mystery. Until now.
As Canada Research Chair in Public Health Genomics, Dr. Jennifer Gardy is using genomic epidemiology to better understand how communicable diseases move from person to person.
Genomic epidemiology involves sequencing the entire genome—the complete set of genetic instructions—of all bacterial or viral pathogens from a specific outbreak. Using this information, Gardy and her research team can identify single-letter changes that arise in one sick patient and are passed to anyone they infect. By examining several such changes in an outbreak, Gardy’s team can pinpoint exactly how the disease moved from person to person-—information that is key to stopping the outbreak and preventing future ones.
Not only does a genome contain information about how a pathogen spreads, but it can also be used to diagnose specific infections, predict how powerful the pathogen might be, and quickly identify its weak points or ability to resist different treatments.
By revolutionizing our ability to understand and manage outbreaks, Gardy’s research could fundamentally change public health microbiology practices in Canada and around the world.