For the sake of science, Michael Snyder takes
a good look at himself — and his mother.
At the age of 54, Michael Snyder at Stanford University had a project that required his mother’s help. The project, which would catapult Snyder into the headlines of science media outlets, was the integrative personal -omics profile, iPOP. Snyder and his team were gathering genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic, metabolomic and autoantibody analyses from one person to see what kinds of information could be obtained by integrating the statuses of thousands of molecules at once. The project was the first of its kind, aiming to demonstrate that -omics technologies put together can reveal details about a person that a single type of technology can’t accomplish.
The person being sampled was Snyder himself. And because of the choice of sample, Snyder knew his mother’s genetic information could be useful. “She’s a curious person by nature,” says Snyder, so he described to her over the phone what he was attempting to do.
“Every mother likes to help out their child,” says 84-year-old Phyllis Snyder. “I figured if Mike needs help, I’d be happy to help him. Plus, I was a chemistry major first before I became a teacher. I always think, ‘anything for science!’”
The iPOP project had been mulling around in Mike Snyder’s head since 2004, when his group was based at Yale University and working on genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics as individual areas of research. Snyder, like other molecular biologists, was keenly aware that genes, RNA transcripts, proteins and other molecules don’t operate in isolation; much can be learned from the intricate connections between these different classes of molecules. Inevitably, the thought started to crop up in Snyder’s head — what if all the different types of -omics could be analyzed at once?
In 2009, technologies and advances in molecular biology matured to a point that it was time to take a stab at the idea, says Snyder. The technology to sequence a person’s genome already was in place, and Snyder’s group had the expertise to tackle the transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics. Snyder got his whole genome sequenced through several different approaches. Over 14 months, Snyder had his transcriptomic, proteomic, metabolomic and autoantibody profiles collected.
His mother’s genome was going to be useful to determine what Snyder had or hadn’t inherited from her. Snyder asked his mother if she was willing to have her genome sequenced and explained the consequences and ethical considerations of genome sequencing. “I said, ‘Sure! Anything you need!’” Phyllis Snyder recalls. “Then he said he would like some blood.”
Her son sent her the consent forms and enrolled her in the study. Phyllis Snyder visited her doctor to have him draw her blood sample and take a buccal swab. She sent the materials to her son. “And that was it!” she says. Asked if she was worried about what her genome might reveal, Snyder says, “I am 84 years old. If something hadn’t shown up before and it turns up now, well, what can you say? I’ve had a good life and I am very proud of all my children.”