Sandy’s an Omicist

Sandy has declared her love for all things “-omics”. She even came up with a nifty table to define a bunch of omes. It’s like she’s created a list-o-omes-eome.

Snark aside, here’s why she likes omes:

I like “ome” [see, I told you she would tell us why she likes omes] because it simultaneously gives us more precise definitions for fields of study, while making a distinction between the reductionist view of biology, that was so popular when I was in graduate school, and the more global-omic-view that’s been emerging of late. When I grew up, we were mired in the one gene – one enzyme rut.

As a self-proclaimed reductionist, who also happens to be a genomicist, I guess I’m a paradox. Actually, I’m not even a single doc, but anyway . . . genomics are NOT reductionist?

On Friday afternoon, the professor whose office is next door to our grad student office poked his head in and asked me a question. He’s been talking to me more and more recently (like, he asked me to help him upload a file on a server that didn’t like his cookie setting last week). This time, he asked me: what’s the opposite of “reductionist”? I’ll give you a paragraph break to think of your answer.

I sat there thinking for a moment, so he figured he’d explain to me what he meant by reductionist — as if I didn’t know. He said, “You know, like molecular biology.” At least he didn’t say, “You know, like genomics.” Anyway, my first answer was, “It’s probably not ‘expansionist'”. I then suggested he venture to a thesaurus. It turns out there are no synonyms for, nor antonyms to, reductionist. My final idea was “holistic”. Not in the Orac way.

So, Sandy thinks genomics is not reductionist. Which means it’s holistic. But there are two types of reductionism: that of scope and that of scale. Genomics may have a large scale, but limited scope. And we like it that way. For a broad scope, we need to look to ecology or physiology (or systems biology). But not genomics, where we only look at DNA sequences.

Perhaps omeomics would allow us to escape the reductionist scope of genomics.


  1. #1 The Ridger
    December 3, 2006

    Is this the same as lumpers and splitters? 😉

  2. #2 coturnix
    December 3, 2006

    Many have written about this and giving it different names, usually not a binary form but a diad, e.g., philosophical (or “vulgar”) reductionism, methodological reductionism and holism (Stephen Rose).
    I like the most Robert Brandon’s analysis, in the last chapter of his 1996 book. It is not available online, but here is an article (PDF) that discusses it pretty fairly:

    I have written a little bit about it here

  3. #3 coturnix
    December 3, 2006

    I meant “triad”, not “diad”!

    And for those who do not like to open PDFs, Brandon’s classification is : strong reductionism, holism and mechanism.

  4. #4 Rosie Redfield
    December 3, 2006

    The whole ‘reductionist’ mess may have begun with Lewontin and Levins in the 1970s. They were very active in the movement to prohobit genetic engineering, and wanted to make a distinction between the wicked molecular biologists and the ethical ‘dialectical’ biologists.

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    December 3, 2006

    Wow, I never knew I was a “wicked” molecular biologist! I like it!

  6. #6 Jonathan Badger
    December 3, 2006

    I always thought that “reductionists” were the people who were obsessed with one regulatory pathway (often in a lab strain of a model organism) rather than in complete real world organisms and their relationship to each other. At least that’s how I saw it when I was in grad school in the mid 1990s at the dawn of genomics.

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