What Is Genomics?

Genomics is the study of entire genomes, including the complete set of genes, their nucleotide sequence and organization, and their interactions within a species and with other species. The advances in genomics have been made possible by DNA sequencing technology.

Just as information technology has led to Google Maps that enable us to get detailed information about locations around the globe, genomic information is used to create similar maps of the DNA of different organisms.

Mapping Genomes

physical map of the human X chromosome

This is a physical map of the human X chromosome. (credit: modification of work by NCBI, NIH)

Genome mapping is the process of finding the location of genes on each chromosome. The maps that are created are comparable to the maps that we use to navigate streets.

A genetic map is an illustration that lists genes and their location on a chromosome. Genetic maps provide the big picture (similar to a map of interstate highways) and use genetic markers (similar to landmarks). A genetic marker is a gene or sequence on a chromosome that shows genetic linkage with a trait of interest.

The genetic marker tends to be inherited with the gene of interest, and one measure of distance between them is the recombination frequency during meiosis. Early geneticists called this linkage analysis.

Physical maps get into the intimate details of smaller regions of the chromosomes (similar to a detailed road map). A physical map is a representation of the physical distance, in nucleotides, between genes or genetic markers. Both genetic linkage maps and physical maps are required to build a complete picture of the genome.

Having a complete map of the genome makes it easier for researchers to study individual genes. Human genome maps help researchers in their efforts to identify human disease-causing genes related to illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and cystic fibrosis, to name a few. In addition, genome mapping can be used to help identify organisms with beneficial traits, such as microbes with the ability to clean up pollutants or even prevent pollution.

Research involving plant genome mapping may lead to methods that produce higher crop yields or to the development of plants that adapt better to climate change.

Genetic maps provide the outline, and physical maps provide the details. It is easy to understand why both types of genome-mapping techniques are important to show the big picture.

Information obtained from each technique is used in combination to study the genome. Genomic mapping is used with different model organisms that are used for research. Genome mapping is still an ongoing process, and as more advanced techniques are developed, more advances are expected. Genome mapping is similar to completing a complicated puzzle using every piece of available data.

Mapping information generated in laboratories all over the world is entered into central databases, such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Efforts are made to make the information more easily accessible to researchers and the general public.

Just as we use global positioning systems instead of paper maps to navigate through roadways, NCBI allows us to use a genome viewer tool to simplify the data mining process.

Top Image: Joi Ito/Flickr