What is genomics?
Genomics is the study of genomes. Every living organism on the planet, from humans to rice to the flu virus has a genome, which contains a mass of information essential for the proper development of the organism. Genomes are made up of a nucleic acid, either DNA or RNA, arranged in sections called chromosomes. They contain vast amounts of information including the DNA or RNA sequence of individual genes, how genes are used and controlled and other factors that affect development. Comparing the genomes of different species provides an insight into how life evolved while comparing differences between individuals of the same species opens up the possibilities of ‘personalised knowledge’ about an individual’s unique genetic make up.
People often ask why we talk about genomics rather than the more familiar genetics. One reason is that as we have learned more about the genome it has become harder and harder to say what parts of the genome are the actual genes. It is often said that a gene provides the information for making a protein, one of the molecules that perform most actual biological functions. But many separate pieces of the genome may be involved in producing a protein, and the same bit of genome sequence may be involved in producing many different proteins. Moreover, less than 2% of the genome provides the coded sequence that determine the order of chemical constituents in proteins. It was once thought that the other 98% was junk, biological detritus along for the evolutionary ride. But it now seems that much more of the genome, perhaps most of it, serves some vital function, and the processes by which living things develop involves many more kinds of things and processes than was once imagined. Genomics, therefore, marks a much broader understanding of biological processes than the more classical term, genetics.
To give an idea of scale, if the human genome was unravelled, it would stretch to 2 metres in length; if it was written out like a novel it would be a mighty tome, more than million pages long, equivalent in length to some 600 Bibles. On the other hand, you could easily store the entire sequence on an ordinary iPod or a single DVD disc. Sequencing technology is now so advanced that is possible to read an entire human genome in just a couple of months.
But are we ready to have access to such vast amounts of information and what effect does this knowledge have on our society? Who should have access to the information our individual genomes hold: family members, doctors, the police, and insurance companies? We can sequence the genomes of key crops, parasites, bacteria and viruses. In agriculture, should we take advantage of the pool of information available and swap useful genes between species to improve our crops? What about manipulating a virus to develop the ultimate bioweapon? These are just some of the many questions facing us as our knowledge of genomics grows.