Genomics: Why we do it

Ever since the human genome was sequenced, genome sequencing has become a big thing in science. Without a genome, it’s more difficult to do a large number of genetic experiments. That’s why organisms like E. coliC. elegans (a nematode, aka worm), zebrafish, and mice are so widely used as models–their genomes are widely accessible and fairly well annotated. My ‘model’, on the other hand (Syngnathid fishes, aka seahorses and pipefish), is not particularly good for genetic experiments, as there is only a draft genome created by another lab that we will someday have access to (it’s basically brand new, so give it some time). However, it will be largely un-annotated. What does that mean? It means that although we have the sequence, it doesn’t really mean much right now because the different parts of the sequence (genes, for example) will be largely unidentified.

Anyway, the point of all this is to bring to your attention why people even bother with studying genomes anyway. In my lab, our goal is not to sequence the entire genome, but to use genomic tools to find regions of the genome that are under sexual selection (this does not necessarily include finding genes). Other people, such as the guy behind the human genome, Craig Venter, sees genomics as opening up doors for human medicine in addition to creating an alternative fuel source. That’s a very applied focus for genomics.

Yesterday, in Nature (one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world), a paper about the butterfly genome was published. The results of sequencing the genome shows that species have been exchanging genes, resulting in copyied wing patterns, which helps the hybrids survive. The researchers also found many genes related to smell, which was surprising since the butterflies had been thought to be primarily visual creatures. Basically, this paper demonstrates another really important function of genomics: understanding the world around us. Admittedly, it also has applications in sustaining biodiversity, which is important for the planet’s health, but to me it really is about understanding and appreciating the complexity of the world around us.

What is most exciting about genomics, in your opinion?

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