What Happens When You Put 500,000 People’s DNA Online

Sarah Zhang:

Every big, ambitious project has to start somewhere, and for U.K. Biobank, it was at an office building south of Manchester, where the project convinced its very first volunteer to pee into a cup and donate a tube of blood in 2006.

U.K. Biobank would go on to recruit 500,000 volunteers for a massive study on the origins of disease. In addition to collecting blood and urine, the study recorded volunteers’ height, weight, blood pressure; tested their cognitive function, bone density, hand-grip strength; scanned their brains, livers, hearts; analyzed their DNA. In breadth and depth, the study is the first of its kind.

Handling all the samples was a logistical challenge. To process thousands of tubes of blood, for example, U.K. Biobank’s lab needed a new robotics system. (This ultimately came from a company that builds machines for packing sausages, not unlike tubes of blood in shape.) Each tube of blood was split into its component parts—red blood cells, white blood cells, plasma—and run through a battery of tests. White blood cells contain DNA, which the project had analyzed, too. When all was said done, U.K. Biobank had assembled one of the largest single genetic data sets ever. It all took a while.