The high rates of genetic disorders in the UAE will be substantially reduced if the entire population's genome is sequenced, according to a pioneer in the field.
Recessive diseases, caused by the inheritance of a genetic mutation carried by both parents, are the fourth highest cause of death in the country.
The high rates are "very unusual" compared with the rest of the world, according to Dr Craig Venter, whose company was the first to map the entire human genome in 2001.
"But it means this country will greatly benefit if genome sequencing becomes a part of the medical norm," he said.
The American scientist, who was in Abu Dhabi yesterday to give a lecture at the Mohamed bin Zayed palace, said mapping the entire population's genome could generate useful advances in medicine.
"The challenge is to digitise everything we know about humans as a species," he said. "We will be able to compare it with the genetic code of the population then we can really make changes."
He said scientists can sequence the human genome from one single cell and from that identify what traits come from which parent.
The quest to map the first human genome, which incidentally was Dr Venter's, started with a US$3 billion (Dh11bn) investment from the US government. Now people can have their personal genetic structure mapped out for just $1,000, which Dr Venter said marks a "dramatic change in technology".
"Now it just takes one cell, two hours and a few thousand dollars. This can really impact human health," he said.
Dr Omniyat Mohammed Al Hajeri, department manager of health promotion and surveillance at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad), said sequencing the UAE population genome was "definitely possible".
"We can revolutionise public health, but we must use it in the most appropriate sense," she said.
The UAE must keep educating people within the science sector to expand its human capital because the future will be "100 per cent dependent on science", Dr Venter said.
"This is one of the best places to change practices," he said. "Even if the UAE is not short on oil, they need to find a way to recycle CO2 and produce food in new ways."
Dr Venter, who also constructed the world's first synthetic chromosome in 2008, said the latter was the focus of his current research.
"Last October we passed seven billion people and we don't know how to feed everyone," he said.
He said it takes about 5,000 litres of water to produce food for one person a day, with the UAE having higher rates than average.
"This is not sustainable ... new approaches with genomics will be part of this solution," he said.
Dr Venter and his team are developing ways to create artificial food by taking genes from cows and chickens and cultivating them with algae, which will "really confuse vegetarians".
He is also working on controlling things such as the common cold. Working with the US government, Dr Venter and his team monitor the flu by sequencing genomes from across the world, through which he can predict an outbreak.
When the US government emails Dr Venter and his team a sequence and a new strain is detected, it takes them less than 12 hours to make a new vaccine.
"It's a very exciting development and it will make it easy to handle future pandemics," he said.