What is phenomics?

What exactly is this new science?
12 November 2019

Interview with 

Sam Virtue, University of Cambridge


A blue cgi bacteria


What exactly is phenomics? And what is a phenotype? To take us through the biological basics, Adam Murphy spoke to Sam Virtue, from the University of Cambridge...

Sam - Phenomics is the study of phenotypes. So you can have all sorts of different phenotypes. What we think of in terms of maybe phenomics and the phenotypes we're looking at, because we work on obesity and diabetes, would be things like the actual physical manifestation. So an obesity phenotype is how heavy you are, or maybe your BMI. A diabetes phenotype would be, do you have high blood glucose.

Adam - So if we've been understanding at a basic level phenomics, certain phenotypes, for a while now; why is something like this centre in Western Australia such a big deal?

Sam - Because with the advance of technology we've begun to be able to look at much more sophisticated phenotypes and in much more detail, and start looking at many, many, many different aspects of biology. So if we think about diabetes for an example, which is what I work on, the very first phenotypes for diabetes date back to the Egyptians, and it was the fact that people would have sweet-tasting urine. But diabetes is a complex disease with many, many different components interacting to lead to this ultimate, clinically-observable sign of high glucose. So with the proposal in Western Australia and the Phenomics Centre, what they will be able to do is not just measure the glucose - which simply tells you someone already has diabetes, and they may have had it for many years undetected - but to look at hundreds if not thousands of different molecules within the body which are all interacting as part of metabolism; to look at things like proteins, to look at things like fats, and see: are these things which can predict whether people will go on to develop diabetes? They can also then start to break apart this one overall classification of diabetes - ie, you have high glucose - into different types. And this then enables us to think about targeting, medically, different people with different phenotypes which are leading to diabetes with different medicines, and we may get better clinical outcomes.


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