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 http://j.mp/3wRIKg
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?
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.
And: RESISTANCE IS USELESS.
(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 .
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.