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The origin of the words gene, genome and genetics 

Most people have heard the word gene and many people will be familiar with the idea of what a gene* is, but have you ever wondered where the word gene comes from and how it, and several related words (genetics, genome and genotype), came to be fundamental to the vocabulary of genetics? 

Gene from the German Gen 

If you look up the meaning of the word gene in the dictionary, aside from the definition, you may find the origin and etymology given as: German Gen, from Pangen [1]; the Greek word genea, meaning “generation, race” [2].  

The origin of the German Gen is attributed to the Danish botanist and geneticist, Wilhelm Ludvig Johannsen (1857-1927), who used it in 1909 to describe the units of heredity [3]. It is thought that Johannsen shortened the German word Pangenes, which had previously been used by the Dutch Botanist Hugo de Vries (1848-1935) [2,8].  

Johannsen studied plant heredity in pure lines of self-fertilized bean plants. He used weight to sort the beans into types, and found that the progeny would have beans of a similar weight. In other words, a heavy bean was more likely to produce progeny with heavier bean weights. He eventually concluded that the plants carried identical hereditary units (i.e., they were genetically identical) even if they looked different, and that variations in bean weight were due to the influence of environmental factors. Johannsen also introduced the terms “genotype” (the genetic makeup) and “phenotype” (the outward appearance) to distinguish between genetic and external characteristics [4,5,6]. 

The word Genetics came first 

It is interesting to note that the word genetics, in the sense of the study of heredity, was first used earlier than the word gene, in 1905. The word genetics in this sense is attributed to the English biologist William Bateson (1861-1926) [3,7].  

The word genetic comes from the Greek word genetikos, which comes from the word genesis meaning “origin“. Its use as an adjective has evolved from meaning “pertaining to origins” in 1831 to “resulting from common origin” in 1859 and finally “pertaining to genetics or genes” in 1908 [8]. From genetic, we have the words genetical and genetically

Today, Genetics is the name we give to the field of biology involved with the study of genes and heredity and the scientists who work in this field are Geneticists.  

Genome also comes from a German word 

Another word related to the word gene is genome meaning a full set of chromosomes or the entire genetic material. It comes from the German word Genom, which was coined by the German botanist Hans Winkler (1877-1945) in 1920 as an amalgamation of the German words Gen and Chromosom. The suffix some comes from the Greek word sōma meaning “the body” [9, 10]. Although Winkler introduced the word in 1920, it took several decades for it to become established [9, 11], which seems amazing given how common the word is in our vocabulary now. 

How we use these words 

Language is continually evolving and even well-established words acquire new meanings and uses. In the more than 100 years since the word gene was adopted, our understanding of the biology and functions of genes has increased dramatically, to the point where scientists have suggested that the dictionary definition of a gene as the basic unit of heredity is too generic and needs to be expanded to include more recent scientific understanding [12]. While there may be arguments for and against this, the word gene is so central to scientific language it is hard to envisage its use changing significantly. 

Furthermore, by looking at some of the many phrases that include the words gene, genetic or genome, it is clear to see how entrenched these words are in the field of genetics. Here are some examples: 

Gene: gene amplification, gene expression, gene mutation, gene pool, gene splicing, gene therapy 

Genetic: genetic code, genetic counseling, genetic engineering, genetic fingerprinting, genetic marker, genetic mutation 

Genome: human genome, genome sequencing 

Can you think of more? 

*Genes are the basic units of heredity. They are sections of DNA with a unique code (specific base sequence) and most genes contain the instructions to produce proteins that carry out specific functions in the cell. We have two copies of each gene, having inherited one from each parent.  

References 

  1. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gene [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=gene  [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. https://www.genome.gov/25520244/online-education-kit-1909-the-word-gene-coined [accessed 6 April 2022] 
  1. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wilhelm-Ludvig-Johannsen [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/wilhelm-ludvig-johannsen-1857-1927 [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110810105157386 [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/genetics [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hugo-de-Vries [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128410577&t=1649320878430 [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=genome [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. Goldman AD, Landweber LF. What Is a Genome? PLoS Genet. 2016 Jul 21;12(7):e1006181. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1006181. PMID: 27442251; PMCID: PMC4956268. https://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1006181 [accessed 7 April 2022] 
  1. Portin P, Wilkins A. The Evolving Definition of the Term “Gene”. Genetics. 2017 Apr; 205(4):1353-1364. doi: 10.1534/genetics.116.196956. PMID: 28360126; PMCID: PMC5378099. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5378099/ [accessed 7 April 2022] 

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