Chances are that every biologist now has an ome to go to. This suffix, first introduced in the genome (the sum total of all an organism’s genes), can now be found attached to just about every aspect of life’s molecular basis. There is the proteome (the full complement of protein molecules in an organism), the glycome (all the sugars), the epigenome (all the non-genetically encoded regulation of gene activity), the lipidome (all the fatty-acid lipids of cell membranes). Omes embrace wider concepts too. The metabolome comprises all the molecules involved in metabolism; the interactome is the network of interactions between genes and other molecules; the phenome is the total of all distinct observable traits (phenotypes), and so on. The integrome is the ome of all the omes: an ome from ome, you might say.
The proliferation of these neologisms has understandably attracted criticisms and ridicule, and even the founding editor of a new journal called Omics told Nature that “most of them will not make sense.” Some researchers suggest that they are just a way of investing an established field – such as the study of metabolic biochemical processes – with the kudos that has become attached to genomics. They are also a marketing ploy: if you have an ome, you surely need your own distinct funding stream.
Geneticist Jonathan Eisen of the University of California at Davis talks about “badomics”, and sees the spread of omes as a pernicious meme that adds clutter and confusion, as well as implying a sometimes misleading analogy to the aims and concepts of genomics. He compares it with the indiscriminate appending of “-gate” to every political blunder post-Watergate. “Some of the omes I have the most trouble with are not even remotely comprehensive, but are simply collections of a small set of some facts about one minor entity”, says Eisen, citing for example the nascentosome (incompletely assembled protein molecules) and the predatosome (genes involved in bacterial predation).
This scepticism is valid, but it doesn’t necessarily get to the core of what is both bad and potentially constructive in the omics fad. An ome is basically a list of parts, whether those are physical entities such as molecules or more abstract such as connections or properties. There is great potential value in such a list, provided that it is comprehensive. If one can…