Last year, New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade wrote a few articles in which he referred to genome sequencing as “decoding”. I chastised him for his poor use of terminology, was pleasantly surprised when he began to correct himself, and then realized that he would never overcome his inability to communicate science clearly.
It appears that Wade has found a new, yet still incorrect, term for genome sequencing. In an article published today, Wade reports on the 454 sequencing of Jim Watson’s genome. Only he reports the Dr. Watson’s genome was “deciphered”. At least he isn’t writing about mapping genomes.
Here’s a little key to help Nicholas Wade and other science writers differentiate between sequencing, decoding, deciphering, and mapping. In genetics, mapping refers to determining the location of a particular genetic element. This can be done by crossing individuals with different genetic markers to determine the recombination distance between the markers (this work was pioneered by Sturtevant) or by physically mapping the genetic elements using something like in situ hybridization. In genetics, decoding refers to determining the genetic code (something that was done a long time ago), while deciphering has no explicit meaning. Determining the actual sequence of a stretch of DNA or an entire genome is called “sequencing”. If you mean sequencing and you write “mapping”, “decoding”, or “deciphering”, you’re only exposing your ignorance.