Just what is genomics? Most people have some idea as to what genetics is all about, or are at least familiar with the term. Introduce genomics into a conversation however and you’re apt to get a blank stare. There are those who use the two terms interchangeably, thinking they mean the same thing, but that’s not quite true, even though there is a definite relationship.
It’s All in the Genes
When we think of genetics, we usually think of it in terms of heredity. We inherit our ancestor’s genes, both the good ones and the not so good ones. When the conversation in about genetics, it most often is about individual genes and what their role is in heredity.
If genetics focuses on matters of heredity then, just what is genomics, and what is its focus? If you haven’t heard the term before, you still very likely have run across the term genome, specifically the human genome. A genome is much more complex than a gene, because it is a collection of genes. The human genome is in fact a collection of all of the genes that make up a given organism, whether that organism is human or something else.
Genes and their relationship to heredity can sometimes be a complex study. The study of a genome, or complete collection of genes is significantly more complex. More complex still is the study of genomics. That still doesn’t tell us what the term means. So, one more time, what is genomics, and why is it such a complicated study?
It’s Not All in the Genes
Genomics is the study of the genome, and in most instances it is the study of the human genome. What makes it complicated is that it is the study of the human genome as it interacts with its environment. This means that non-genetic factors come into play. Genomics isn’t just about what the human organism is like, but what it is like in relationship to the environment it is in. That environment is often expressed in terms of a person’s lifestyle.
This of course leads to yet another question. If genomics is the study of the genome as it reacts with the environment it is in, of what importance is such a study? What are the goals of the study of genomics? The answer is actually fairly straightforward. If you come down with some disease, the cause of that disease could he hereditary, or it could be caused by something in the environment, which could be anything from germs to simply leading an unhealthy lifestyle. Your genetic make-up might be the cause of a disease you come down with, or it could make you more susceptible to a disease where the environment is a factor, or it could make you more resistant to certain diseases.
In other words, you can’t totally separate diseases that are a direct resort of a person’s genetic make-up from those diseases, like the flu, that come from the outside. You genetic makeup could be such that you have a weakened immune system, and consequently you will fall victim to any germ that happens to be passing by. Monogenic diseases, those that directly result from genetic disorders, are relatively rare, affecting less than one percent of the populations. Many diseases, such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes, to give three examples, are much more complex, and their cause is often due to some combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Why the Study of Genomics is Important
What the study of genomics does, or is trying to do, is gain a better understanding of those complex diseases whose causes are not always well understood. Many of these diseases appear to have roots both in the environment a person is living in and the person’s genetic makeup. The more that is understood about the human genome, and the ways in which the environment can impact it, the greater the knowledge will be as to what causes certain human diseases and disorders. At least that’s the hope.
The genome and the environment it’s in represents a dynamic system, and dynamic systems are more often than not complex systems. Genomics addresses this complexity by going about trying to understand it by a disciplined approach that has been built around a great deal of knowledge.
An analogy may be of some help. If you are studying a single plant, and how well it is functioning in the environment it’s in, it would be analogous to a study in genetics. If you’re looking into the health and well-being of an entire garden, it would be analogous to a study in genomics. Looking at one plant is like studying a single gene, including the effects of the environment on that gene. Studying the garden requires looking at multiple genes, the effect of the environment on those genes individually and collectively, and the effects interactions between the different genes. This is one reason why, in a vegetable garden, it’s not always a good idea to plant certain types of vegetables too close to certain other types of vegetables. It gets complicated.