Biotechnology is changing language

Fifteen years ago the language of the Internet sounded like gibberish to most farmers. Now words like e-mail, online, and download, are likely part of your everyday vocabulary.

Ten years from now the same may be said for the language of biotechnology.

Words that were once confined to the dark corridors of higher learning institutions, are now making their way into conversations among farmers at local coffee shops and commodity meetings.

In order to better understand the genetics behind the science of biotechnology, it might help to breakdown the processes of this ever-evolving science into more manageable bite-sized pieces. To this end, Southeast Farm Press, with the help of Alan Wood, director of the Life Sciences and Biotechnology Institute at Mississippi State University, has developed the following glossary of biotechnology terms.

Genome — A genome is the complete set of genes for an organism.

Put simply, a genome is a parts list for an organism. It's like getting a complete parts list for a car, and while it is helpful, it alone won't tell you how the car works. You still need more information before you can answer the question, “How does this work?”

“The complete genomes of more than 20 organisms have been sequenced by scientists to date. We've also discovered the presence of a gene in an organism does not necessarily mean it is expressed, or turned on,” Wood says.

Transcriptome — This is the complete set of messenger RNA, present in a cell, tissue or organ. Messenger RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information from one place to another in an organism, and in most cases is translated into a protein.

“Some recent biotechnology has moved to the transcriptome or microchip technology, which can help researchers determine which messenger RNAs are being transcribed, or expressed, from the genes,” Wood says. “It's like a repair manual for a car. It provides you with more information, but you are still not sure exactly how the car runs.”

Proteome — Proteome is the complete set of proteins present in a cell, tissue or organ.

This is where the rubber meets the road. It's the how-to manual for how something works, because it tells you what is going on in a cell.

Wood says, “The realization that just because a messenger RNA is transcribed from a gene may not mean that is translated to a protein has led to the development of proteiomic technology, which tells us the type and amount of protein made under certain conditions.”

Post-Proteome — Post-proteome is a complete characterization of post-translation modifications.

“It is now being appreciated that just because a protein is made does not mean that it is active. Some proteins may need to be modified after translation in order to become active,” says Wood. “We are currently setting up a proteomic center at the Biotechnology Institute, which will be used to study the proteomes of insect, plants, fish and bacteria. The future prospects for understanding complex genetics is really quite remarkable.”

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