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The New Science of Metagenomics: Revealing the Secrets of Our Microbial Planet
The Other “Omics” Sciences
The term genome was first proposed by Hans Winkler, a professor of botany at the University of Hamburg, Germany, in 1920 (Winstead 2007). It was coined to describe the total hereditary material contained in an organism long before it was known that genetic information is encoded by DNA. Today genome is used to describe all the DNA present in a haploid set of chromosomes in eukaryotes, in a single chromosome in bacteria, or all the DNA or RNA in viruses. The suffix ome is derived from the Greek for “all” or “every.” In the past several years, many related neologistic omes have come into use to describe related fields of study that encompass other aspects of large-scale biology. Some of them are:
The proteome, the total set of proteins in an organism, tissue, or cell type; proteomics is the associated field of study.
The transcriptome, the total set of RNAs found in an organism, tissue, or cell type.
The metabolome, the entire complement of metabolites that are generated in an organism, tissue, or cell type.
The interactome, the entire set of molecular interactions in an organism.
The list of “omes” and “omics” is growing longer as scientists develop new tools and approaches for carrying out large-scale studies of biological systems.
behaviors and the biosphere at the genomic level. Although in its current early implementation (and for the purposes of this report) metagenomics focuses on non-eukaryotic microbes (see Box 1-2), there is no doubt that its concepts and methods will ultimately transform all biology. In just this way has genomics, a science developed to aid the advancement of biomedicine and the understanding of our own species, transformed the science of all organisms and the application of that science in epidemiology, clinical microbiology, virology, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, biotechnology, microbial forensics, and many other fields.
In conceptualizing metagenomics, we might simply modify Leroy Hood’s definition of systems biology as “the science of discovering, modeling, understanding and ultimately managing at the molecular level the dynamic relationships between the molecules that define living organisms” (Hood 2006). We need only replace the last word, organisms, with the phrase “communities and the biosphere.”