After the success of the genome, scientists have got carried away with the study of 'omics. They all want 'omes of their ownby Oliver Morton / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Having produced the answer to life, the universe and everything in the form of a complete sequence of the human genome, what do you do for an encore? If you’re in the genomics business, you try and work out what on earth the compact disc full of data really means, argue about how many actual genes there are on it and lobby for funds to create more genomes-rat, raccoon, fruitfly, slime mould, dog, you name it. If you aren’t in the genome business, then you have to try and arrange the mirrors of public perception in such a way as to get some reflected glory. The best way to do this, it appears, is lexigraphic. Biologists have come to believe the suffix for success is an ‘omics. They all want an ‘ome of their own.
People who study proteins have developed a new fascination with proteomics. The devotees of RNA-transcription seek a complete transcriptome. The Cambridge Healthtech Institute’s helpful online “-omes and -omics glossary” lists 20 or so root terms that have been -omicised, often to form the name of a company (BioNome, Cellomics). In an article on the rise of these similar sounding studies-omophones?-in The Scientist, Joshua Lederberg and Alexa McCray, a linguist, dredged up 44 different ‘omes from the OED and a few web-based scientific databases. Some of these are good old established ‘omes like rhizome (root systems) and thallome (a non-vascular vegetable); a few, the authors admit, are conjectures added to the list as a jape. My search engine reveals that one of them is found chiefly on hardcore porn websites, suggesting it may mean something filthy in Japanese. But others really are words for fledgling fields: immunomics, pharmacogenomics, regulomics.
This sounds like a brainstorming session for new Asterix characters, but it’s not as silly as it seems. The brilliance of the human genome project was that its originators reimagined what the study of genes might be. Most geneticists before the 1980s either thought about the behaviour of genes in general or studied a few genes of particular interest. The genome project introduced a new possibility-the study of a great but finite number of real, not theoretical, genes. To begin with, it was treated as an auxiliary tool with which to achieve the original ends: traditional genetics with economies of scale. As the project went on, though, it became clear that there were new sorts of questions…