Teenager Discovered DNA Mutations That fights HIV And Meningitis and won a $150,000 prize
Andrew Jin, 17, of San Jose, California, won the First Place Medal of Distinction for Global Good and $150,000 prize for creating a way to find helpful DNA mutations that can combat diseases like HIV, meningitis, schizophrenia and even the flu, which rewards finalists who demonstrate great scientific potential through their passion to make a difference.
Andrew developed a machine learning algorithm to identify adaptive mutations across the human genome. By analyzing massive public genomic datasets, his system discovered more than 100 adaptive mutations related to immune response, metabolism, brain development and schizophrenia in real DNA sequences. Understanding the genetic causes of these diseases is an important first step toward developing gene therapies or vaccines. Andrew is an accomplished pianist who has performed at Carnegie Hall.
Initially, Jin wanted to investigate how humans have evolved over the past 10,000 years. “I was doing it out of curiosity,” he says. “I started thinking about natural selection and evolution, and that we understand so much about its theory, but we know nothing about reality. I was curious about what mutations help us be sophisticated human beings.”
Jin decided to examine 179 human DNA sequences from different parts of the world. Each sequence consisted of 3 million base pairs of DNA–far too much to look at without help from an algorithm. So he set up a machine learning algorithm and found 130 potentially adaptive mutations, related to things like immune response and metabolism, that played a role in human evolution.
Working from a summer program at MIT, Jin refined his research and came up with a handful of mutations, including ones involved in resistance to meningitis and decreased susceptibility to viruses like influenza and HIV, that could potentially be used by pharmaceutical companies in new drug development.
There have been other natural-selection studies in the past looking for adaptive mutations, but Jin says that many of his findings are new. There’s still a long way to go before he starts chatting up Big Pharma, however. “There’s very, very strong evidence for these mutations playing a role in disease resistance, but in order to confirm, I would have to do biological experiments to study their protective mechanisms. That’s what I’m interested in doing now,” says Jin.
Once he gets to college (he’s not yet sure where that will be), Jin plans to pursue computer science or biology. But that’s not all he’s good at: The teen is a talented pianist who has played at Carnegie Hall. “I’m also an avid Boy Scout,” he says.