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The creation of this word only in very recent years is a pointer to what might be a new suffix, -omics. It has already appeared in genomics, the study of the genetic make-up of organisms, and proteomics, the study of the way proteins work inside cells, plus several compounds such as toxicogenomics. This new term refers to the study of sugars within organisms.

The glycome is the set of sugars an organism or cell makes. What is slowly becoming clear to biochemists is that these sugars play as vital a role in making the cell work as do the proteins. They combine to form giant molecules such as carbohydrates and cellulose; they are already known to regulate hormones, organise embryonic development, direct the movement of cells and proteins throughout the body, and regulate the immune system. It shows yet again that the DNA in the genome is only one aspect of the complex mechanism that keeps the body running — decoding the DNA is one step towards understanding, but by itself it doesn’t specify everything that happens within the organism.

The ending -omics is etymologically odd, since it doesn’t have a direct ancestor in the classical languages. It’s actually -ics, for a branch of knowledge, added to -ome (as in genome). There is an existing ending -ome, “having a specified nature”, but genome doesn’t use it. That word was created as a blend of gene and chromosome, so the ending is actually the last part of -some, which derives from Greek soma, body. The prefix part of glycomics is from Greek glukus, sweet.

This ending has nothing to do with -nomics, which turns up in terms like Reaganomics and which comes from the final element of the words economics and ergonomics.

Scientists are saying that glycomics could fuel a revolution in biology to rival that of the human genome.

New Scientist, Oct. 2002

But even as doctors and drug companies struggle to interpret and exploit the recent explosion of data on genes and proteins, yet another field of biology is waiting to break out: glycomics. This emerging discipline seeks to do for sugars and carbohydrates what genomics and proteomics have done for genes and proteins — move them into the mainstream of biomedical research and drug discovery.

Technology Review, Oct. 2001

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Nov. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-gly1.htm
Last modified: 30 November 2002.