Updated: Jan 8, 2020
The omics are coming. Actually, they're already here and they will change life as we know it – life as in improved disease treatment or prevention, and in half the planet not starving as climate change makes conventional agriculture impossible.
So the omics need to be understood; not rejected out of fear or misinformation as happened with the genetic engineering ‘debate’.
The omics represent a more complete understanding of molecular biology.
They are based on a suite of new analytical tools that have continued on from where genetic engineering left off; or really never got started. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) still send some people into a lather, but it is already old technology; useful as a research tool but limited in real-world application.
Today, it’s the omics that govern. For now.
They provide understanding of the complete package: why an organism lives; why an organism is different to a lump of clay; and why all life on this plant is interrelated and interdependent.
Also, the omics open the door for biology to overlap with ‘the machine’.
Integrating and analysing the enormous data sets that the omics are generating is going to need super-human power – Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
Omics allow rapid, large-scale, high-throughput analysis of biological systems, particularly the functions, relationships, and actions of various types of molecules that make up the cells of an organism (this includes we humans).
The omics reflect a far more sophisticated understanding of genetics and far more subtle recruitment of beneficial traits, or silencing of damaging traits, than the DNA cut and paste method of 20 years ago to achieve a rapid genetic change – such as making crop plants resistant to a particular disease or to herbicides.
In dipping your toe into the omics pond, keep in mind there is only one type of DNA and it is shared by all plants and animals. However, there are stretches of DNA that are unique not only to different species, but to individuals.
So, time to meet your omics.
A genome is an organism's complete set of DNA, including all of its genes. Genomics incorporates the study of genes and their interrelationships, including their evolutionary development shaped over the eons by environmental and disease pressures. Genomics map patterns of life that overlay individual plant and animal species. As a map, though, it is still only a crude sketch. There is a long way to go to identify the houses that line the route or the occupants of those houses! So much biodiversity yet to discover.
Transcriptomics shows us how, from a common DNA origin, different life forms have evolved and developed. Genes are transcribed into RNA (cells’ information carriers). The transcriptome comprises all the RNA molecules within a cell, including expressed genes. From this we can learn how and why cells develop specialist functions and how, through different patterns of gene expression, different organisms can share the same genes, eg. humans and chimps are different species but have 99 per cent of their genetic make-up in common with each other; or even more starkly, humans share as much as 70 per cent of their genes with plants.
The proteome is the entire complement of proteins produced by an organism.
Proteomics is the analysis of the structure and/or function of all proteins in a living cell or organism, under a defined set of conditions. Put simply, proteins are the next structure up from genes and are where all biological activity happens; eg. sensory perception, hormonal signalling, mechanical force (muscles) … everything.
The metabolome represents the complete set of metabolites (small molecules), which are the product of metabolic processes in a biological cell, tissue, organ or organism. Metabolomics cover functions such as digestion and an organism’s energy systems and the influences of these on cellular function.
Phenomics is the technology that can rapidly analyse and compare physical, physiological or growth characteristics among thousands of organisms. This is the all-important first step towards identifying a basis for differences in organisms' ability to survive and thrive in different environments. It results in the identification of ‘phenotypes’ (discrete physical traits) and information about the trait's inheritability across generations and the impact of environments on the expression of that trait. Phenotypes can be analysed using other 'omics' to identify underlying molecular mechanisms.
The intersection of biology and belief
The history of agriculture leads to the plains below Mount Ararat near the Turkey-Armenia border, and on its slopes today can still be found ancient relatives of many of today’s domesticated food crops. It is also where biology meets its antithesis. Some believe that beneath the permanent cap of ice and snow rests the remains of Noah’s Ark, the craft in the biblical global flood narrative. There is no scientific evidence that the Ark existed, nor is there geologic evidence of the flood, but it may in its own way have been a valid lesson on the need to preserve and breed from the most productive species. That is, after all, the essence of agriculture – and below Mount Ararat is where it started.
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