Every living thing has a genome - information in the form of DNA that orchestrates all of the processes that take place inside each cell. This information is contained in a sequence of chemicals - the DNA letters A, C, G, T - around three billion of them in the case of humans. If we can find out the sequence of letters in a genome, it gives us clues about every aspect of how the organism works and came to be the way it is.
At the National University of Ireland Galway we're sequencing the genome of a strange sea creature, Hydractinia echinata. It is a small, many-headed, jellyfish-like animal that lives on the shells of crabs and is found in abundance along Ireland's coastline. It has some very interesting and unusual properties including an amazing ability to regenerate itself: if you chop off a part of it, it quickly grows back. It is also very resistant to cancer and it doesn't show any signs of ageing. It seems to achieve some of this by maintaining stem cells (cells that can become any other cell in the body) throughout its adult life and not just in its early developmental stages like most other animals.
By sequencing its genome we hope to learn about how it manages to do this, learning, in the process, about the biology of stem cells, regeneration and aging in other animals, including humans.
It makes a lot of sense to study animals with unusual abilities so we can find out how some of these properties might help to treat human diseases. Wouldn't it be great if we could learn from Hydractinia how to get damaged nerves or joints to grow back?
Although much of the history of human genetics has focused on finding out the causes of disease, in more recent times people have also started to look at positive traits. For example, there have been big international research projects to find out whether there is anything unusual in the genomes of people who live to be more than 100.
At this time of year, one particular individual who has lived for an awfully long time comes to mind. St Nicholas, or Santa Claus as he is often known, was born in the 4th Century but appears to be still going strong.
Does Santa's genome contain clues to how he has managed to survive this long? There is probably only one way to find out: we have decided to sequence his genome. The only catch is that contributing to scientific research seems to be pretty low on Santa's list of priorities, especially at this time of year, and all of the requests we have sent to him asking for a sample (even just a strand of his abundant white hair) have so far gone unanswered!
It appears that Santa is unable to resist biscuits and cakes and reports have reached us that half-eaten traces of these foodstuffs have been discovered in Irish homes. Using new sequencing technologies the team believes that it may be possible to isolate enough DNA from these samples to sequence the genome.
Here's where you come in: we are launching a national appeal for samples of Santa. If you have discovered a biscuit that may contain a trace of Santa, please handle it with care to avoid contaminating it with your own DNA, enclose it in a sealed sample bag (a freezer bag would be perfect) and send it to us.
Samples should be marked for the urgent attention of the Santa Genome Sequencing Project, Care of Dr John Newell, Clinical Research Facility, NUI Galway.
Professor Cathal Seoighe is professor of bioinformatics at NUI Galway, with interests in genomics and molecular evolution. His research is supported by the Irish Research Council.