Genes in the Cloud: Google Steps Into Autism Research

Google Inc. and Autism Speaks, a major autism research foundation, plan to announce on Tuesday a deal in which the Internet giant will house the sequencing of 10,000 complete genomes and other clinical data of children with autism and their siblings and parents. The hope of those involved is to accelerate research on the developmental disorder.

Studying genes has been touted as a key to understanding Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and autism. But huge DNA databases require computing and storage that many universities and research hospitals don’t have. The database will be part of the AUT10K, the Autism Speaks genome-mapping program. It is thought to be the largest collection of whole genomes and would be open to all qualified researchers. The tools needed to analyze the data would be available on the Google system. “Cloud computing is the great leveler,” says Mark DeLong, director of research computing at Duke University. Also, “it opens up new avenues for talent development.” Dr. DeLong isn’t involved in the partnership.

One of the biggest insights gleaned from genetic research in autism so far is that there isn’t just one form of autism, but many. Whole-genome sequencing, which allows scientists to look at every single letter—known as a base pair or nucleotide—in a person’s DNA should provide “increased resolution of understanding what autism is,” says Robert Ring, chief science officer at Autism Speaks.

Google wants to use its cloud technology to help Autism Speaks and others in genomics get results “better, faster and cheaper,” says David Glazer, Google’s engineering director in charge of the genomics cloud effort.

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