Jul 8, 2013

RetNet: A Web-Based Guide to Every Retinal Disease Gene Known to Man

Science Education

Check out RetNet, the online catalogue of every known retinal degenerative disease gene.

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Photo of Dr. Stephen Daiger

Dr. Stephen Daiger

t isn’t as addictive as posting your status to Facebook. Nor is it as entertaining as cat blooper videos on YouTube. And it won’t let you send 140-character rants about your political views through cyberspace. But if you are in any way connected to the world of retinal research, you’ll want to check out RetNet, the online catalogue of every known retinal degenerative disease gene. After you do, Steve Daiger, Ph.D., RetNet’s creator, will no doubt become your BFF.

With more than 200 genes now linked to retinal degenerations, and more being discovered every year, RetNet is truly indispensible, especially for researchers. It is simply impossible for anyone to keep track of all retina-relevant DNA on their own.

Perhaps most impressive is the catalogue’s depth of information, which includes links from RetNet to reliable sources, such the National Institutes of Health. RetNet covers the function of each gene’s encoded protein, which mutations in the genes cause disease, each gene’s chromosomal location and interactions with other genes. The site even links to abstracts of related research articles for each gene, dating back more than two decades.

Even if you are not a scientist — perhaps you or a loved one has a retinal disease — there’s undoubtedly new information you’ll glean from RetNet. If nothing else, it will give you an appreciation of the vastness and complexity of the world of retinal degenerative diseases.

With the help of his colleague Lori Sullivan, Ph.D., and a web programmer, Dr. Daiger created RetNet back in the mid-1990s, when only five retinitis pigmentosa genes were known. The idea for the online retinal gene catalogue came from Dr. Daiger’s friend Bob Cottingham, a computer science and genomics wiz, who is now head of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“Bob suggested that I start a ‘website’ on the ‘internet’ for cataloguing retinal disease genes, though I had only a vague notion of what those terms meant back then,” recalls Dr. Daiger. “Today, Lori, Dr. Sara Bowne and I review new research publications weekly and update the database.”

Dr. Daiger doesn’t mind that RetNet is often taken for granted, because it is used so frequently and ubiquitously. “I’m amused by the young scientists who are surprised that someone actually ‘runs’ RetNet,” he says. “They have just come to accept it as a natural part of the world. I take it as a compliment, but it means we have a serious responsibility to keep it up-to-date. And we work hard to do so.”

RetNet is funded by the Foundation Fighting BlindnessThe George Gund Foundation, and the Hermann Eye Fund.

Dr. Daiger and his team are based at the Laboratory for Molecular Diagnosis of Inherited Eye Diseases at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. The team’s research focuses on finding and characterizing genes and mutations causing inherited retinal diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosaLeber congenital amaurosis and macular degeneration.