Biocode: The New Age of Genomics

Biocode: The New Age of Genomics

Biocode: The New Age of Genomics

Biocode: The New Age of Genomics


The living world runs on genomic software - what Dawn Field and Neil Davies call the "biocode" - the sum of all DNA on Earth. In Biocode, they tell the story of a new age of scientific discovery: the growing global effort to read and map the biocode, and what that might mean for the future. The structure of DNA was identified in 1953, and the whole human genome was mapped by 2003. Since then the new field of genomics has mushroomed and is now operating on an industrial scale. Genomes can now be sequenced rapidly and increasingly cheaply. The genomes of large numbers of organisms from mammals to microbes, have been mapped. Getting your genome sequenced is becoming affordable for many. You too can check paternity, find out where your ancestors came from, or whether you are at risk of some diseases. Some check out the pedigree of their pets, while others turn genomes into art. Astray hair is enough to crudely reconstruct the face of the owner. From reading to constructing: the first steps to creating artificial life have already been taken. Some may find the rapidity of developments, and the potential for misuse, alarming. But they also open up unprecedented possibilities. The ability to read DNA has changed how we view ourselves and understand our place in nature. From the largest oceans, to the insides of our guts, we are able to explore the biosphere as never before, from the genome up. Sequencing technology has made the invisible world of microbes visible, and biodiversity genomics is revealing whole new worlds within us and without. The findings are transformational: we are all ecosystems now. Already the first efforts at 'barcoding' entire ecological communities and creating 'genomic observatories' have begun. The future, the authors argue, will involve biocoding the entire planet.


DNA is a biological code elegantly composed of only four letters: A, C, G, and T. From this simplicity comes all the complexity of life. The key message of this book is that despite all the tremendous achievements the era of genomics is only starting. We are still seeing just the earliest, fuzziest glimmers of deep insight compared to the richness of life on Earth and the questions we can use it to answer. We stand on the cusp of sequencing the Earth from genome to ecosystem, from our own guts to our oceans.

In the course of eight chapters we attempt to span the breadth of the study of genomics from the discovery of the DNA double helix to the impending promise of planetary-scale genomics. Breakthroughs came in thick and fast during this project and we hope that the breadth of topics helps convey how fast the field is moving. A complete set of endnotes and references provides links to further reading or use in the classroom.

We need to thank many people. Top of the list is Latha Menon, editor extraordinaire. She shepherded this book through all steps from first enquiry to published form, often graciously sharing her wisdom over coffee. Likewise, we are indebted to her assistant Emma Ma for her help and advice and to Oxford University Press for making the project possible.

Critical readers are like gold dust and Suse (and John!) Field was a fountain of excellent feedback throughout the project. Andrew Singer was the best possible sounding board for early ideas of the ‘genomic stories’ we might best select. Jack Gilbert and Rob Knight merit special kudos for reading and commenting on complete drafts—but above all . . .

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