Much of our “genetic” terminology stems from the Greek word, genesis, for origin or creation. Yet when it comes to genome, Hans Winkler (1877-1945), a University of Hamburg botanist, deserves considerable credit.
In 1920, Winkler collided the German word for gene, gen, with the Greek suffix, -om, indicating body (from soma), to form genom for his textbook, Distribution and Cause of Parthenogenesis in the Plant and Animal Kingdoms, (Verbreitung und Ursache der Parthenogenesis im Pflanzen-und Tierreiche).
Such verbal concoctions were common during Winkler’s era, including biome (a system of classifying ecological environments), rhizome (an entire system of roots of a plant), coelome (a system of cavities), and, more germane, chromosomes, (or colorful bodies, because of their propensity to pick up specific dyes then in use by those peering at cells through microscopes).
Winkler coined genom to describe the “haploid chromosome set, which, together with the pertinent protoplasm, specifies the material foundations of the species”.
After the discovery of DNA’s three-dimensional structure in 1953, the term genome only gained more ground in describing the physical specifications of a species’ entire DNA sequence and its genetic repertoire. Unlike a mere two-dimensional map, identifying the genome of a species allows scientists to home in on the location of specific genes and explore their functions.
Geneticists began describing the genomes of several viruses in the 1960s. Applying molecular cloning techniques in the 1970s, more complex genomes were identified. In 1990, after much urging of the nation’s best scientists, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health set out to describe the 3.3 billion base pairs comprising the complete sequence of the human genome, a task that was essentially completed in 2003.
If published in book form, with each page consisting of 1000 letters and every book containing 1000 pages, the human genome would fill 3300 volumes. For those more mobile, it represents a mere 825 megabytes (2 bytes per pair), or one music CD.
The word genome is now an active part of our scientific vocabulary--even if, in our inimitably human way, we tend to forget that every species has one, many of which are quite similar to ours. More recently, genome has come to signify the holy grail of modern medicine; a multi-billion dollar tool that many believe will someday reveal the cause, cure, and even prevention of a host of diseases. Future assessments of the word will, undoubtedly, rely on the scientific community’s ability to figure out such closely guarded secrets.