Ome sweet ome

It has been a rather exhausting December, for all kinds of reasons – one of them, though not the biggest, being the move of this blog into its new home at Occam’s Typewriter.

Consequently, since my last working day at The Bunker on the 23rd I have been feeling fairly well wiped out. And what with Christmas, and the ongoing war for precedence between the children, I have had neither much time to blog nor much in the way of ideas and thoughts on what to do.

Only one thing for it, then – another raid on my own archives.

But what to disinter?

While I was pondering this, I spotted the following Tweet from Oxford Psychology Prof and blogger Dorothy Bishop:

Q: what does -ome mean? A: somethng so huge that it’ll consume millions of $ over many yrs with no hypotheses. See @mocost

The link is to an interesting article by another blogger, Mo Costandi, about a rather grandiose brain mapping project, the “Human Connectome Project”, that the NIH is sinking a shedload of money (well, US $ 30 million) into.

What caught my eye, of course, was the -Ome. It reminded me that I had once written something about the mania for coined words including the suffix “-ome” or “-omics”, and the idea that such –Omes were now a necessary condition for scientific Now-ness. So here is the piece, written more than seven years ago, if you can believe that, for the Christmas 2003 edition of Physiology News. It may, as a consequence, read a little dated. Somehow, though, I have the impression that between then and now the number of  -Omes has increased substantially. I would be interested to know what anyone else thinks.

And given the vast and expanding set of -Omes that we are now afflicted with, perhaps it is now time to coin a new collective name for the full set.

The “Omeome”, anyone?


Gnomic –omicsTM

We are now living, everyone tells me, in the age of ‘Omes and –omics’.

What, some of you may ask, is an -Ome?

It hardly needs to be said that this is an ‘Ome’, O-M-E, and NOT an ‘Ohm’, O-H-M, of the type long beloved by physiologists – or at least by electrophysiologists.

Those Ohms were manageable, if mildly tricky for the non-physics-literate. -Omes are quite a different proposition.


(That was a physics and physiology joke, by the way)
Anyway, for the uninitiated, if there are any left, an -Ome or ‘Ome is one of those made-up words, more and more common nowadays, produced by taking a sensible word – like ‘transcription’ or ‘protein’ or ‘physiology’ – and tagging –ome on the end. This instantly turns it into something incredibly modern-sounding but whose precise meaning no-one understands. Transcriptome. Proteome. Physiome. And there are more. Many, many more.

Next, you can go another step, and make your Ome into an ‘Omic’ or ‘Omics’ . That way you can define a whole sub-science, or discipline, which is completely opaque to outsiders.

Transcriptomics. Proteomics. Metabolomics.

Admittedly, some people may feel they have an idea what those last three are getting at.

But how about these ones? Methylomics. Diagnomics. Even Degradomics.

The last of these sounds like something you could get arrested for, unless you were consenting adults behind closed doors. Believe me, though, all of the above are real. They have been coined, and used [1].

And ‘Diagnomics’ was evidently so catchy that someone has trademarked it: so I should really have written it:


Like many crazy trends, this one started out with good intentions. After all, it makes perfect sense to have a single short word for all of the genetic information of an organism. Hence ‘genome’. A useful word because it has a clear meaning and saves unnecessary verbiage, as we can now say ‘cell division occurs after replication of the cell’s genome’. Or ‘every single cell in the body carries the complete human genome.’

But it didn’t stop there. Of course.

The problem is that we live, as if it needed repeating, in an age where the appearance, or impression, something gives is at least as important as the reality of what it does, or is.

Since this applies to entire Governments, it is no surprise it also applies to University Departments, or to scientific disciplines.

Everyone has to look as if they are ‘cutting edge’, and are riding whatever new wave is this year’s Big Idea.

In a nutshell, what you do has to sound ‘Now’. Or you’re history. Literally.

And having lots of the right leading-edge terminology is a big part of sounding suitably “Now”.

So once genomics became the latest buzz-word, it was only a matter of time before other areas of biology followed suit. Because something like “Physiology” sounds – well, a bit dull.

After all, we’ve had a Journal of Physiology for more than a hundred and twenty years. Talk about dusty. And as for metabolism… let’s face it, what could sound more Yesterday?

Metabolism, of course, was what biochemistry departments did 25 years ago, before they all embraced recombinant DNA with the fervour of the born-again. Metabolism? Old hat. But Metabolomics– completely different.

Just the – omic alone tells you that Metabolomics is definitely Very Now.

And so it spreads.

Studying physiology? Yawn. Yesterday.

But ‘Mapping physiological genomics’ or ‘Interrogating the physiome’. Now that’s NOW. That’s TODAY.

And so, by definition, no area of biological science can compete for headlines, Now-ness and – critically – funding unless it can coin a term as catchy and Now as ‘Genomics’ for it’s bit of science.

Next, these words start proliferating in the titles of departments, and institutes, as universities and other institutions strive to appear ever more Now.

I predict that within the next 5 years many physiologists will be working in departments or schools of ‘Physiological Genomics’ (best case) or ‘Integrative Biomics’ or even just ‘Integratomics’.

After all, it’s another easy one for the managers. Want to make clear that the biological sciences in your institution are leading-edge? No problem. Just change the word ‘Biology’ by a kind of Global Replace to ‘Biomics’. As one UK medical school – no name to spare the embarrassment of those working there – has already done.

But there is a snag for those bioscientists keen to appear truly Ultra-Now:

Because if every bioscience department or institute rechristens itself ‘Biomics’, how will anyone know which of them are REALLY Now? As opposed to just aspiring desperately to Now-ness?

Basically, how can we stand out from all those other Centres for Integrative Biomics?

As a responsible staff member, I have already written to my Vice Chancellor – I think s/he’s still a Vice Chancellor, although these days s/he may well have been renamed something more Now, such as a Principal or a President – to suggest that we need to stand out from the herd of newly–arising Centres for Biomics. We need a name that is suitably Now, but also subtly different.

So I have proposed we set up an Interdisciplinary Centre for Integrative…No, not Biomics, like everyone else. Ours will be for Integrative BIOLICS.

The quick-witted among you will have already guessed that the first ‘i’ in ‘Biolics’ is silent.

Anyway, here’s hoping you are having a good holiday. And that you are enjoying your time at -Ome.


About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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10 Responses to Ome sweet ome

  1. rpg says:

    “The “Omeome”, anyone?”

    You’re only about five years too late for that, Austin. See

  2. cromercrox says:

    Hahahaha! Working as I do as an editor at your favourite weekly science journal beginning with N, I am pleased to say that I have very little to do with -omes, as these are the concerns of colleagues much cooler and trendier than I (until someone foists suggests that I deal with ‘paleomics’, hey, don’t joke, it could happen). Until such a time squishes wetly up from the basement arrives I shall remind you of a song called ‘Design for Living’ performed in the late 1950s by Flanders and Swann, in which they lampooned the emerging cadre of the style-conscious. I’m sure you can find it on YouTube. In it, Flanders declaims to the audience –

    ‘Have you an ‘Ome that Cries Out to your Every Visitor: “Here Lives Someone Who Is Exciting To Know”. No? Why not…

    Get hold of some of those 454 or Illumina sequencing devices and nail them upside down to the floor. This will give a SENSATION of walking on 454 or Illumina sequencing devices nailed upside down to the floor…’

    Or something like that, anyway, I’m working from memory.

  3. Mike says:

    Ahhhh the omememe. With any luck, in a few days it will all be so last decade.

  4. ricardipus says:

    Argh. Discussed to death at the Science Advisory Board. I gave up at “ionomics”.

    However, the medical profession has had a wonderful term for many years, to describe a tumour found serendipitously on X-ray for another condition (e.g., broken bone) – “incidentaloma”. I believe that the sum total of all such identifications would be, you guessed it…

    … the ‘incidentalome’.

    I’ll get me coat now.

  5. I fear this isn’t too far from my own recent post. I used the example of graphene versus gallium arsenide, because I’m a physicist, but it’s all the same thing. What’s NOW gets funded. Things that are so last year, much less likely to do. Things that are 10 years old or more but can be disguised under cover of the latest buzz word – yes it does sound like some of your -omics are just that.

  6. Kausik Datta says:

    You are so unfair, Austin! This meme of -Ome and -Omics has afforded hithertofore-unwarranted respectability to an entire set of professional endeavors. Surely that counts for something?

    Let me explain. You know that in the English dictionary, there are many words of terrible and sinister significance, whose importance has been emphasized and re-emphasized in popular culture by distilling their essence to a single letter of the alphabet. For example, there are the F-word, the N-word, the A-word, the M-word, the S-word and so forth. The most disturbing of them, wielding unimaginable power, is the C-word [Shiver!], the One Word to Rule Them All.

    An intrepid and courageous group of professionals, sensing the latent power of such words to visit doom and destruction upon mankind, has decided to study them all; wisely, they have chosen to focus on the C-word [Shiver!], for in it lie, and come out of it, all the other such words, indeed, all of us. Therefore, the important study of all such Words of Power, as well as the esoteric professionals who study them, are collectively christened as C-omics.

    I should go. Now. And make an Ome-lette or s-Ome-thing.

  7. Good for you, @ricardipus, for digging up that thread! I remember following it with some interest and trepidation.

    A corollary observation is the number of not-cutting-edge followers who bemoan the fact that “if we had done this ten years ago, with less work and fewer controls, it could have been published in [your favorite journal here]!” Until time travel has been perfected, a usefully untestable hypothesis good for eliciting some groans of commiseration only.

    • ricardipus says:

      Heather – reading that SAB discussion thread gave me a (metaphorical) headache. Although I did like the term “omeomics” to describe the study of the development of omics (a bit like historiography I guess).

      At times, I tell people my PhD was in physical and genetic mapping of a complex gene cluster, or “genomics” before most people were calling it that. Nobody is impressed.

  8. Austin says:

    Cheers all for the comments. Willl answer as I have time – or perhaps even put up an addendum to the post, since the comments have sent me on several fascinating by-ways.

    To begin with:


    Thanks for the link to the fascinating SAB thread. I now see why rpg claimed to have invented “Omeomics”..! Convergent evolution, I think.

    Actually the thread start date (Nov 2002) would probably be a bit less than a year before I originally wrote the above rant (Autumn 2003). And I also see you spotted the London Medical school with the “Biomics” centre.

    Being a medical spouse, I had come across “Incidentalomas” – see e.g. this discussion on one of David Colquhoun’s blog threads. Haven’t heard it made into an “Omics” yet.

    BTW, someone has already done “paleomics”, but for microbes rather than for large organisms. Perhaps they didn’t tell Henry for fear he would blow a gasket.

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