Big Data: a case study in traditional Chinese medicine

Professor Michael Bunce and his team at the Trace and Environmental DNA (TrEnD) laboratory at Curtin University are faced with a computational challenge – analysing and comparing millions of DNA sequences with previously sequenced DNA to determine the ingredients of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Identifying trace DNA signatures in TCMs will accurately determine the ingredients used by manufacturers and see if they are being correctly represented. The use of TCMs as an alternative therapy is growing in Australia. The need for clarity of the ingredients on these imported goods is important so that we know where they are being obtained from and if they are safe for human consumption.

The use of the Magnus system at Pawsey Supercomputing Centre has facilitated the auditing of TCM. Using bioinformatics and high performance computing, the researchers are able to develop new approaches that tap into the genetic code.

 “It is an exciting time in the field of genetics,” says Professor Michael Bunce. “With new DNA sequencers and compute power we have the ability to chase genetic ‘breadcrumbs’ and then use this information across a wide diversity of projects; from DNA in seawater to detect invasive species through to ancient DNA from bone to better understand the archaeology of the southwest”.

The results of the study were both concerning and alarming when DNA was detected from endangered animals (e.g. snow leopard) and plants (e.g. asarum) in some of the TCMs, found with their genetic signatures. These ingredients were not listed on the medicines and consumers need to be made aware of what they are purchasing and consuming. The poaching, trafficking and smuggling of endangered wildlife is illegal because of their rarity and carries severe penalties.

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