Genomics: what’s in a name?

Genome, derived from Gene, traces its roots via Pangen to Darwin’s controversial notion of Pangenesis.

Darwin’s decades of research on the inheritance of characteristics had left open an important question. What was the mechanism of inheritance? In 1868, nearly ten years after the publication of The Origin of Species, he framed a hypothesis, which he termed Pangenesis, from the Greek pan (a prefix meaning “whole”, “encompassing”) and genesis (“birth”). He hypothesized the existence of particles, named gemmules, which were shed by every part of the body before coming together in the sperm or egg. It allowed for the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and was never that popular.

In 1889 a Dutch botanist called Hugo de Vries proposed his own theory of the inheritance of characteristics, also based on hypothesized particles. He called these pangenes, later shortened to genes.

But what was a gene? Biochemists had been studying the molecules on which life is based, including the cellular components termed chromosomes. In 1910, an American scientist, Thomas Hunt Morgan, was pioneering a new field of study at the intersection of genetics and biochemistry, now known as molecular biology. He was able to show, via a series of experiments on fruit flies, that genes resided on chromosomes. Genes had suddenly become physical. The term genome, introduced in 1920, is a fusion of gene and chromosome, and means the totality of an organism’s genetic material.

In 1987, a group of molecular biologists that were studying the structure, function and evolution of genomes, proposed the term genomics as the title of a new journal. The “-omics” suffix has come to imply the systematic, large-scale, data-driven study of a given domain.

It seems very fitting to have a name that incorporates three essential aspects of the field: inherited information, its physical manifestation, and methodology.


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