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Robert Fulton: A Career in Genomics

A self-described "jack of all trades geneticist," Robert Fulton, Group Leader of Sequencing Improvement for The Genome Institute, began his career by happenstance.

While working on his master’s degree at SIU Edwardsville, Fulton was searching for a summer job. A friend who was working at Washington University asked if Fulton was interested in a job on campus. Eager to do any job given to him, Fulton spent his days in the McDonnell Science building filling media boxes for the X Chromosome Project, a precursor to the Human Genome Project. 

Summer Job Turned Career

What began as a summer job turned into a career as Fulton continued on with Washington University after finishing his graduate degree. He worked with the X Chromosome Mapping Project for two years, which happened to be housed on the same floor as the original Genome Sequencing Center. Now, almost 20 years later, Fulton has seen the Human Genome Project evolve from one lab in the science building to a global collaborative effort. In that span of time he’s also witnessed an amazing advance in the time it takes to sequence an entire human genome. When the project first began it took nearly ten years to sequence the human genome and now it takes close to a day to do the same thing.

From Worms to Humans

Fulton has had his hands on many projects at The Genome Institute from mapping the genomic sequence of a worm all the way to the human sequence. In order to track the progress made over the last 15 years, he is has mapped out a graph with his wife Lucinda (who oversees the production process at The Genome Institute). “We graphed our ability (to sequence) over the years,” said Futon. “On the scale our capabilities jumped ten-fold every two or three years, our current capacity is just amazing.”

Medical Sequencing

Fulton is also working to improve the way DNA is sequenced and referenced. One major project he is overseeing is the sequencing of medical data. Medical sequencing is basically the mapping of multiple human genomes that can be used for medical reference. This allows researchers to answer questions about how individual human genomic variations translate into different disease phenotypes (physical or biochemical characteristics of the disease). 

“Currently we’re sequencing specific regions of human DNA,” said Fulton. “We can sequence 100 lung cancer patients and compare them to healthy patients, along with comparing tumor tissue versus normal tissue.” These types of projects have researchers looking for differences in the DNA sequences between the tissue in tumors and normal tissue. They then compare those sequences with the overall human DNA reference sequence.

Sequencing Pipeline

The reference sequence also allows scientists to identify genes and their exact function in the body. Fulton’s team has developed a complex sequencing pipeline that is able to produce amazing quantities of sequence data through a highly automated system. Using this process they are also working to resolve ambiguities, gaps, and improve the quality of initial DNA sequences.

Changing Technologies

Despite their expertise, a daily hurdle for Fulton and his team is keeping up with constantly changing sequencing technologies. With sequencing methods being so diverse, the speed, flexibility and efficiency of which his team can absorb these methods are critical to their successes. “Efforts for improvement of these procedures span many aspects of the sequencing pipeline, including sequencing chemistry and assembly algorithm improvements, “ said Fulton. “These improvements have come through close interaction between many groups at The Genome Institute including technology development, production and informatics, as well as external collaborations with many different groups.”

Shared Effort

Luckily, Fulton and his group have support from many areas. “In this field there’s a lot of shared effort, “ he said. “We’re thankful for the help, since as we’ve grown in size and as new technologies are developed, the more processes and projects we’re responsible for.” Being able to understand all the subtle differences in various DNA sequences is something Fulton’s years of experience have brought to The Genome Institute and has helped make it the success it is today.