More info about this myth

These two words sound very similar, so it’s not hard to imagine why some people think that genetics and genomics are the same thing. There is definitely some overlap between two, so let’s investigate a little closer.

So, let’s think about books for a second. Firstly, imagine that you really love one specific series of books about the wizarding world. You’ve read all seven books, you know what house you would be sorted into, know all about the trivia… You might even call yourself an expert! This is like the study of genetics, you research one specific gene or set of genes and try to learn all about it. Now think of an entire library, full of different books that cover a variety of topics, but not only books, there are paintings on the wall and a collection of DVDs you can borrow. This is more like the study of genomics, you study the full range of genes (in this case books) the so called ‘non coding’ regions of the DNA (in this case the DVD collection) and also how they work together and interact with other factors like the environment (in this case the artwork on the walls in the library).

The study of genetics really started with an Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel. This guy spent his free time breeding peas in the monastery garden and took a great deal of interest in the variations within his pea plants. He called his studies of how physical traits were passed from parent plants to their offspring “trait inheritance”. He conducted these studies between 1856 and 1863 and published his findings in 1865. At this time, he referred to “units of inheritance” as being the way traits were inherited (it wasn’t until 1909 that the word “gene” was first used, by a Danish botanist by the name of Wilhelm Johannsen). Despite this early work, it wasn’t until much later, in 1952 that two researchers, Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase, were able to prove that it was the DNA that carries our “units of inheritance” aka our genetic material, unlocking a much greater understanding of inheritance.

In 1977 Frederick Sanger developed a technique for DNA sequencing and used it to sequence the entire genome of a virus, however, it wasn’t until 1986 that the word “genomics” was first used. (This was one year after DNA profiling was first used to crack a criminal case, and four years before the Human Genome Project was launched in 1990.) The study of genomics is more encompassing than genetics is and is allowing researchers to discover a great deal about life on Earth. The field of genomics only came into being in recent decades because of huge advancements in both DNA sequencing, and computational biology, and this field of research evolves in response to new and cutting-edge technology.

While genetics is incredibly useful in helping to understand some inherited traits, not many traits are caused by one single gene. Because genomics looks at all the genetic information an organism has, it can find minute differences between individuals that can help explain how different traits are caused. Time for one last simile! Imagine two buckets full of your Halloween candy. Genetics is a bit like searching through each bucket for the same type of chocolate bar, and then comparing the two. Do they both look the same? Are they the same size? Equally covered in chocolate? Genomics on the other hand is more like taking every single piece of candy out of each bucket and comparing everything about the buckets, as well as the two lots of candy, down to the colors of the gummy bears, and noting all the differences. One is a tool for looking at differences in one or a few genes, while the other is a tool to examine all the genes and more. So just like the candy bar is amongst the rest of the Halloween candy, the field of genetics fits within the field of genomics, but they have different uses and functionality!

If you would like to hear more about genomics and genetics, you might like to listen to the first episode of our podcast, Nice Genes! which features our host Dr Kaylee Byers and our first ever guest, science communicator and neuroscientist, Dr Samantha Yammine, aka “Science Sam”! (Forewarning, there is no discussion of candy in this episode, but don’t let that stop you eating candy while you listen!)


Educators: For an additional free resource to use with your students you may like to investigate the ‘Lost in Translation’ activity, created by our Geneskool team. You can find this resource here.