Where The Word 'Genome' Came From

In 1920, a botanist named Hans Winkler merged the Greek words "genesis" and "soma" to describe a body of genes. On this episode of Science Diction, historian Howard Markel discusses the word "genome" and how it became the most popular way of describing all of our genetic material.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

That sound can only mean it's time for Science Diction, our monthly history of scientific words.

Now, what word are we going to pick today? Genome. It's an active part of our scientific vocabulary. It's defined as all of our genetic information. Maybe some of you are thinking of having yours sequenced. We talked about it earlier today.

Howard Markel is professor of History of Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Also, director of the Center for the History of Medicine, there. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor HOWARD MARKEL: (History of Medicine, University of Michigan; Director, Center for the History of Medicine) Well, it's great to be back, Ira.

FLATOW: Howard, where does that word, genome, come from?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, you know, most of our genetic terminology comes from the Greek work genesis, which means origin or creation. But when it comes to genome, we have to give a botanist from the University of Hamburg, his name was Hans Winkler, all the credit. He was writing a textbook on botany in 1920 and he collided the German root word for gene, which is gene, with the Greek suffix ome, which indicates body.

Now, this was a very common concoction back then. You know, there's biome and rhizome for a system of roots. And, of course, chromosomes, which actually means colorful bodies, because they had a propensity to pick up specific dyes that in use, when you are peering that cell through a microscope. But he used the word genome exactly as you defined the entire chromosome set, to specify the material foundations of our species.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MARKEL: And it really caught on particularly after 1953, when Watson and Crick most famously described the structure of DNA. And geneticists, a few years later, began to describe the genomes of several viruses and more complex organisms. And by the late 1980s, and officially in 1990, United States Department of Energy and the National Institute of Health set out to describe the 3.3 billion base pairs that comprise our human genome and its genetic repertoire.

FLATOW: And I guess ome, meaning of body, is a better suffix than something meaning a map.

Prof. MARKEL: Exactly. Because a map really is a two-dimensional structure. It doesn't really tell you - it may tell you how far something is from something else, but it won't tell you about the hills that you may encounter or the valleys or the climatic conditions and so on. And we really want to know how that chromosome set interacts with the protoplasm. What's around it - the proteins, molecules and so on?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And is the habit of putting the word ome on, was that - back 30 years ago, was that very common adding that suffix?

Prof. MARKEL: Absolutely. You know, as I said, there were all these wonderful words concocted between 1900 or 1890 and 1930 and biome is the one that we use most commonly.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. MARKEL: And zilome, a system of cavities and so on. So it's very common. And now we see prodianomics(ph) and so on. It's still going on.

Now, what's very interesting to me, as a historian, is what will be the future of genome, you know? And it's come to everybody's vocabulary and it's come to represent the Holy Grail of modern medicine. You know, a tool that will help us reveal the cause, cure and even prevention of diseases, but, of course, future assessments of that where we'll rely on the scientific community's ability to figure out such closely guarded secrets.

FLATOW: Is there another suffix like ome waiting in the wings?

Prof. MARKEL: I'm sure there are. And I'm sure there's a number of words that are ready to be concocted. But the thing about genome is, scientists love precise words. And if you use genetic map - you know, I actually asked a number of people who are in the room, so to speak, when the human genome project was developed. They said, there was no other word we would ever have come to, because there was nothing else quite as precise.

So the great thing about making up words is that you can make them mean whatever you want them to mean.

FLATOW: And how long did genome take, you know, to be accepted?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, it started in 1920, but it...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. MARKEL: ...by the 1950s, it was really catching on. And, certainly, as soon as the structure of the double helix was understood and that different based pairs reacted differently with proteins and molecules and so on, that you needed to know that three dimensionality to predict what the repertoire would be of things that are functional and not so functional, for that matter -scientists adapted it right away.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, thank you, Howard.

Prof. MARKEL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. Howard Markel is professor of History of Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and director of the Center for History of Medicine there. We were talking about the word genome.

If you've got a better word, put it in our website at sciencefriday.com and click on a comment. Leave us a comment what you think might be a better word than genome. Maybe we can force it into the Oxford English Dictionary somewhere along the line. It might take a little bit, so please be patient.

That's about all the time we have for today. Greg Smith composed our theme music, and we had help from NPR librarian Kee Malesky.

If you missed any part of our show, you can take it along with you. You can now download our iPhone app for instant access to our SCIENCE FRIDAY videos and our SCIENCE FRIDAY audio Podcast. Also, you can follow us on twitter. We're twitting all weeklong: @scifri. And, of course, you can follow us on Facebook and also our website. Leave a conversation and comments about the program and anything else you'd like to talk about.

Have a great weekend. I'll see you next week.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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