Increasingly, genes are no longer studied in isolation. We’re witnessing the rise of genomics — a subset of genetics that considers genes’ interaction with each other, as well as their environments. This broader, more inclusive take on gene science signals a fundamental shift to omics. It’s a neologism that stems from terms such as genomics, proteomics (the study of proteins), pharmacogenomics, and metabolomics.
This paradigm shift is one where Estonian genomics feels right at home. Since the dawn of the 21st century, leading international publications such as Nature, Nature Genomics, and Science, have published more than 100 influential articles co-authored by an Estonian researcher.
Roots and key people
Molecular biology in Estonia found its scientific bearings in the 1960s, when a molecular biology lab was built at the University of Tartu. The late 1980s saw the arrival of two major research centres that remain active today: the Estonian Biocentre and the University of Tartu Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology.
As Estonian gene science gained momentum, additional institutions were founded — the University of Tartu Institute of Technology (professor Mart Ustav) and the Estonian Genome Centre (professor Andres Metspalu). The country has produced internationally known scholars such as Mart Saarma, who founded the Finnish Biocentre, and Toomas Kivisild, a lecturer of human evolutionary genetics at the University of Cambridge.
Influential research groups operate at the University of Tartu Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine (professors Sulev Kõks, Pärt Peterson, Andres Salumets) and at the Department of Gene Technology, which is part of the Tallinn University of Technology (professors Toomas Neuman, Peep Palumaa, Tõnis Timmusk, and Erki Truve.)
The Estonian Genome Centre
Founded in 2001, the Estonian Genome Centre is a research venture of the University of Tartu and operates a database of health, genealogical and genome data representing 5 percent of Estonia’s population.
The data helps understand how genetic and epigenetic information affect individuals, their development, aging, wellbeing and illnesses — as well as behaviour and psychology amid changes that come from their surrounding environment and lifestyle.
The overarching goal is to make personalised healthcare a reality. Were these plans to materialise, Estonia would become the first country in the world to base its entire public health system on personalised medicine.
As of June 2013, the EGC had collected tissue samples and held both genotype and phenotype information from more than 50,000 gene donors. The Centre is an example upon which other European biobanks have been modelled. On average, it participates in 30-40 international projects a year.
Funded by an €8m EU grant, the University of Helsinki and the University of Leiden chose the EGC as the location where the founders of future European biobanks come to gain experience and expertise.
The Estonian Biocentre
The Estonian Biocentre is a public biomedical research institute that explores gene and cell technologies. Its main research is focused on the area where molecular medicine and biotechnology meet. Its pursuits are divided between bioinformatics, evolutionary biology, gene technology, and oncogenesis.
For example, the Biocentre’s researchers are developing DNA-based methods of molecular diagnostics and describing the differences between personal genomes. Its teams are also studying human and population genetics, researching genome structure and function, and developing a microarray-based genotyping platform for genetic analysis and molecular diagnostics. The centre holds 30,000 DNA samples from various populations across the world.
Estonia hosts large international bioinformatics research groups that collaborate closely with each other. Examples include the Estonian Biocentre, the Estonian Genome Centre and the University of Tartu Institute of Computer Science.