What's the UK Biobank?

Why do they have half a million people's DNA?
14 October 2019

Interview with 

Mark Effingham, UK Biobank


a blood sample on a slide in a lab


When it comes to genetics, sometimes it seems like data is king. Especially, as Phil Sansom found out, when you’re talking to someone like Mark Effingham...

Mark - I'm Mark Effingham, I'm the Chief Operating Officer for UK Biobank.

Phil - The UK Biobank, if you haven’t heard of it, is this enormous scientific project that’s sort of part research study, part charity, part big Excel spreadsheet. Around a decade ago they managed to get half a million volunteers between the ages of 40-69 to come in, give a bit of blood and urine, and answer just a load of questions about themselves. The idea is that any scientist can cross-reference and study that data however they want. And now the Biobank is adding a pretty significant column to that spreadsheet: whole-genome sequencing.

Mark - I guess this is starting to understand the human genome. That genome effectively contains three billion letters. What we’re trying to do is look at that genetic code across half a million people.

Phil - Hang on a moment. Three billion letters… half a million people… I’m gonna need a calculator… [typing]... OK. That’s a one, and a five, and then fourteen zeroes. One and a half quadrillion little bits of DNA. I’m no expert... but I think that’s quite a lot? After talking to Mark I had a few questions. So I went to find some answers.

Mark - It really is exciting.

Clare - I think there will be moments of frustration - there always is…

Serena - You can have a complete world map...

Hannah - It just takes so long, man!

Phil - Today on the show, we're talking in the quadrillions. I'm Phil Sansom, and this is Naked Genetics.


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