Big biology: The ’omes puzzle

Where once there was the genome, now there are thousands of ’omes. Nature goes in search of the ones that matter.

’Omics bashing is in fashion. In the past year, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have run pieces poking fun at the proliferation of scientific words ending in -ome, which now number in the thousands. One scientist has created a bad­omics generator, which randomly adds the suffix to a list of biological terms and generates eerily plausible titles for scientific papers (example: ‘Sequencing the bacteriostaticome reveals insights into evolution and the environment’). Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, regularly announces awards for unnecessary additions to the scientific vocabulary on his blog (recent winner: CircadiOmics, for genes involved in daily circadian rhythms).
Botanist Hans Winkler had no idea what he was starting back in 1920, when he proposed the term ‘genome’ to refer to a set of chromosomes. Other ’omes existed even then, such as biome (collection of living things) and rhizome (system of roots), many of them based on the Greek suffix ‘-ome’ — meaning, roughly, ‘having the nature of’. But it was the glamorization of ‘genome’ by megabuck initiatives such as the Human Genome Project that really set the trend in motion, says Alexa McCray, a linguist and medical informatician at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “By virtue of that suffix, you are saying that you are part of a brand new exciting science.”
Researchers also recognize the marketing potential of an inspirational syllable, says Eisen. “People are saying that it’s its own field and that it deserves its own funding agency,” he says. But although some ’omes raise an eyebrow — museomics (sequencing projects on archived samples) and the tongue-in-cheek ciliomics (study of the wriggling hairlike projections on some cells) — scientists insist that at least some ’omes serve a good purpose. “Most of them will not make sense and some will make sense, so a balance should be in place,” says Eugene Kolker, chief data officer at Seattle Children’s Hospital in Washington, and founding editor of the journal Omics. “If we just laugh about different new terms, that’s not good.”
Ideally, branding an area as an ’ome helps to encourage big ideas, define research questions and inspire analytical approaches to tackle them (see ‘Hot or not’). “I think -ome is a very important suffix. It’s the clarion call of genomics,” says Mark Gerstein, a computational biologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “It’s the idea of everything, it’s the thing we find inspiring.” Here, Nature takes a look at five up-and-coming ’omes that represent new vistas in science.

By Monya Baker
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