Genomics versus Genetics: What's The Difference?

In discussions about genetic testing, the terms "genetics" and "genomics" often get tossed around interchangeably. But they aren't the same thing. Genetics usually refers to the study of specific, individual genes and their role in inheritance. This area of research has helped identify the genes involved in a number of relatively rare genetic disorders and has led to the ability to diagnose and screen for some of those disorders. The study of genetics has been with us for a long time, ever since an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel traced heritable traits in his pea plants in the 1800s. Major findings in the 20th century concerned "monogenic" diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis, caused by an error in a single gene.

Genomics is More Complex

Genomics, on the other hand, is more complex and usually refers to an organism's entire genetic makeup, which is called a genome. In addition, the study of genomics includes understanding how the genome interacts with environmental or non-genetic factors, such as a person's lifestyle. This new area of science has the potential to improve our understanding of complex diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, as well as improve medical treatment.

Unlike monogenic diseases, most of the conditions that affect large groups of people, such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, are more complicated. These diseases are caused by variations in more than one gene or by multiple genes interacting with each other and the environment. Testing for and treating complex diseases presents challenges, but genomics can help. This new science, emerging with the mapping of the human genome in 2003, focuses on all of the genes and genetic material as a dynamic system. Ultimately, by understanding how genes interact with non-genetic factors over which people have control, such as diet, exercise, and smoking, we may one day be able to prevent some complex diseases.



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