Allison Vuong

What Are Omics Technologies

Let’s go back to high school. You may remember hearing about the “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology”. Orrrr, maybe not. It all starts with DNA – you know, the thing in the Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) show which can often identify the criminal. Indeed DNA is what makes each person who they are, and likewise, each bacterium what it is! The central dogma of molecular biology explains how that DNA, a subset of alphabetic letters, can eventually be read by cells and be turned into some sort of function in both humans and bacteria.

Now let’s fast-forward into adulthood. Have you heard the suffix “omics” tacked onto words you thought you knew – genome becoming genomics? Gen-omics, transcript-omics, prote-omics, metabol-omics?! As it turns out, X-omics is really just the study of X, and each X has its own set of tools that helps scientists analyze the journey along this “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology”. Each omics technology is focused on a different part of the process in making the DNA (a stagnant sequence of letters) into an active, living organism!

Let’s keep talking CSI, because actually omics work is a lot like detective work. Imagine it is found that a beneficial bacterium can control a devastating plant-pathogenic fungus that has been a nightmare for farmers. You want to figure out how.

Bring out the yellow caution tape, seal off the area, investigate your scene, and label any potential evidence. Since we don’t know what pieces of the puzzle are important, we’ll label every item we see with a number, and look at every aspect of the environment to see what we’re working with. In omics, this is the DNA. Before we can figure out exactly what about the microbe is helping the plant survive, we need to know everything the microbe had to work with that may later turn out to play a role in getting rid of the fungus – we need to know what’s in its DNA. Not all of it may turn out to be important in the end, but it’s a starting point. Figuring out this landscape is done through a process called DNA sequencing, and subsequent analyses using the outcome of sequencing (the genome) is called “genomics”.

Allison Vuong, Bioinformatics Specialist
Allison Vuong, Bioinformatics Specialist
Allison Vuong,
Bioinformatics Specialist

Onto step 2. Start interviewing! See who was in the environment you just surveyed – where were they and at what time? This part of omics is the transcriptomics. It lets you not only figure out who was at the scene, but it also helps differentiate who is always a part of your scene (like the mailman) and who is suspicious or out of the ordinary. If one of our suspects was seen at a restaurant at the time of the crime, we can probably eliminate that suspect. On the other hand, if a never-before-seen face was spotted by the neighbors around the time of the crime, that should raise some red flags. Transcriptomics allows us to say that at a certain time and under certain conditions, we can eliminate certain areas of our original landscape, or DNA, because they weren’t playing an active role during the time of interest. It can also allow us to highlight certain areas of our DNA landscape that are suspicious due to abnormal activity. Transcriptomics helps us refine our search space.

Start piecing together what you’ve gathered from your interviews. From your one-on-ones with everyone at the scene, you start to get a fuller understanding of whom out of those spotted at the scene is an important player in the crime. Additionally, from your interviews you’ve gathered that the suspect is a certain size and had certain behaviours that stuck out to passerbyers. Proteomics has provided you with a set of tools that helps you extract and filter possible suspects in a cell, based on size, certain behaviors, and many other properties. You were told by several sources that one of the perpetrators was a female. Then another source tells you she’s between 5’ and 5’ 5”. By taking advantage of more and more properties of your suspect, you can start to separate the elements in the cell that could have helped play a role in your fungus control.

What started as an entire landscape of DNA, was reduced to out of the ordinary, “active” areas. The “active” areas are now further filtered by unique properties.

Each of the “omics” technologies: genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, offers a different tool in the toolbox to assist in the investigation of a cell. These describe some of the main tram stops in the central dogma of molecular biology, but in reality there are many more omics technologies like metabolomics, epigenomics, phenomics, inomics, etc along the journey from DNA to a biological organism. Combining these technologies’ perspectives can ultimately help scientists at Bayer Biologics figure out what parts of the genome, under what conditions, will become active actors in helping a microbe control pests or diseases or even help a crop grow better.

As with every investigative show, the journey to the discovery can be filled with unexpected twists and turns, but this only makes the final working theory all the more rewarding. At the end of the day, all you can hope for is a resolution that seems to explain the evidence gathered, and that they don’t leave you on a cliffhanger to the next episode.

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