Focusing On Phenomics In Specialty Crops

Not that long ago, the term “genomics” did not mean much to most people.

If anything, it was lumped into that confusing biotechnological bucket of “DNA,” “genetic engineering,” “GMO,” and “gene therapy.” Something that scientists might understand, but for many in ag it was somehow related to Roundup Ready crops and “stacked genes” in new corn and soybean releases. Or something that the television series “CSI” must have used when they employed DNA evidence to catch the bad guys.

Now, if you have $100, you can submit a sample of your DNA to a company like 23andMe and receive a detailed analysis of all the genes in your 23 chromosomes — your genome — within a few weeks.

Suddenly, more than 1 million 23andMe customers have become familiar with their very own genetic profile, based on analysis of a little tube of saliva they sent in. They can use this information on the specific genetic information they carry to assess health care choices, unravel their ancestry, and determine the probability of passing on a predisposition to certain diseases to their children.

While some applications of such personal genetic testing are controversial and significant regulatory constraints remain, it certainly seems inevitable that “genomics” is a term that is not just meaningful, but will be quite personal, to millions. Technical language around genomics is still difficult and often incomprehensible, but everyone can now have a sense of their personal genetic profile — all the DNA material that constitutes their genome.

Now ADD the Environment
What are the chances the same will soon apply to the term “phenomics?”

At its simplest, a phenome is any organism’s collection of traits: physical, biochemical, and physiological. Just as every human (or an apple) has their own unique genome, which can be termed its genotype, they have their own unique phenome, which is termed phenotype.

But this is where phenomics becomes very challenging. An organism‘s genotype is determined by the genes on the chromosome it inherits from its parents. Except for relatively rare mutations, it is a fixed set of DNA-based instructions, the blueprint for life.

An organism’s phenotype, on the other hand, is determined both by its genotype and the environment(s) in which it has existed. Biologists often express this in the simple equation: Phenotype = Genotype + Environment (P = G + E). Colloquially, we often say an individual is the product of both nature and nurture.

Nature is quite familiar to ag producers, sometimes beneficent, sometimes malevolent. Early season frost, timely rain, a spotted wing drosophila invasion, perfect harvest conditions, those biotic and abiotic factors that have positive and negative impacts on their crop.

Of course, producers attempt to manipulate their environment to optimize the quality and quantity of the end product, whether it is a rose flower, an apple fruit, an almond nut, a golf course green, or a bottle of wine.

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