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 that one could address when faced with an exhaustive list of an organism’s genes, and these questions came to be known as genomics. It is not a coincidence that this transition happened at the same time that computers were offering new ways to deal with large amounts of information.
The new ‘omes hope to do something similar-to supplement studies of generalised abstractions and few specific instances with studies of a large but finite and exhaustive catalogue of real entities. Thus proteomics, which is attracting investment in the hundreds of millions of pounds from both public and private sources, seeks to create and describe libraries of all the proteins that an organism makes. Transcriptomics seeks to catalogue the gene transcripts from which proteins are made. Such large scale listings are not just inspired by the well-funded campaign on the genome-they are its continuation.
Without understanding what happens when genes are transcribed and turned into proteins, you cannot have a full picture of what’s going on. The new ‘omicses are thus necessary to make sense of all that data in the genome. A recent paper from genome-pioneer Leroy Hood’s lab at the University of Washington, “Integrated Genomic and Proteomic Analyses of a Systematically Perturbed Metabolic Network,” points the way to this glorious synthesis.
This data-heavy analysis of the minutiae of life is terribly exciting. But its new nomenclature can go too far: witness the annual conference/trade-fair called Biomics, “The only European conference and exhibition which integrates genomics and proteomics.” This is a misappropriation. The concept of the biome-all the living things within a large suite of related ecosystems-actually dates back to 1916, when it was first used by the great American ecologist Fred Clements. (This is why the giant structures at the Eden project in Cornwall are called biomes, it’s not just that they are domes for biology.) Indeed it is quite possible that when Hans Winkler coined the term genome in 1920 he had the term biome in mind as an analogy. And when global change is pushing biomes around in ways Clements could not have foreseen, it seems a little strange that a name coined to bring a new large-scale approach to ecology into focus should be annexed for yet more molecular studies.
If new names can make biological fields seem hip, that hipness should be allowed out of the lab and into the great outdoors. The study of large scale ecosystems should take its rightful place as biomics-and the long overdue effort to catalogue all the species of life on the planet earth might be called terromics. The fact that the term terrome is already in occasional use as the first name of Chef in South Park should not be too great an obstacle to this worthwhile endeavour. If new names can make biological fields seem hip, that hipness should be allowed out of the lab.