Death of the genome paper
- Department of Biology, Western University, London, ON, Canada
There is a bloated folder on my laptop computer called Limbolandomics, and stuffed inside it are dozens of genome sequences eagerly waiting to be analyzed, written up, and published. I haven’t told the sequences yet, but their chance to shine in the academic spotlight, to have their nucleotides forever inscribed in the annals of scientific literature, even in an obscure journal, may never come. The “genome paper” is dying and could soon be dead.
Not long ago, a folder full of genomes would have been worth its weight in high-impact publications. The formula was simple. Open with a catchy introduction about the organism of interest, emphasizing its broad biological importance and the many questions that its DNA sequence will help answer, then describe the genome in all its glory, using beautiful chromosome maps and dizzying Venn diagrams.
Genome papers have been the bread and butter of evolutionary biologists and geneticists for decades. They’ve been cultivated, packaged, promoted, and used to describe just about every type of DNA molecule imaginable. From the itty-bitty genomes of viruses, plasmids, and organelles to the gargantuan nuclear genomes of plants, animals, and protists, from the oh-so-boring-won’t-reveal-a-darn-thing-about-anything genomes to the super-cool-send-me-to-Nature genomes, you name it, there’s a genome paper for it.
I built my PhD thesis on genome papers, and most of my peers did the same. My first undergraduate research project was to sequence and describe the mitochondrial genome of the giant sea scallop. On top of being a riveting conversation starter at the campus pub, the scallop genome taught me tons about genetics and the publication process. A genome project, when the sequence is manageable, like a mitochondrial DNA, can be an excellent teaching tool. There is a well-defined goal, the methods are generally straightforward and cover a wide range of techniques, from molecular biology to population genetics to bioinformatics, and writing up the data is often enjoyable, and in some ways similar to a character sketch.
One of the drawbacks of genome papers, however, is that they can create a mindset of sequence first, ask questions later. I once attended a Masters thesis defense where the external examiner asked the candidate why he sequenced the chloroplast genome of this particular species and what hypothesis was he trying to test. The student, looking startled, answered, “Because the genome hadn’t been sequenced before and we didn’t know what it looked like.” After the defense, I overheard the examiner in the hallway venting to another professor. “We’ve created a culture of serial genomicists,” she exclaimed. “Everyone’s jumping from one genome sequence to the next, looking to score a major publication.”