The details overlooked: a genome biologist’s tale of the jungle

As my time in Panama ends, I travel back to the frigid (although surprisingly humid, for some reason) Illinois winter to continue my studies. Even though is good to be back home, I still think about my time there. There’s something about the trees, the corals, the sun, and the people, that somehow draws you back. So, in this cold and wet morning, I’ll think back about my experiences there.


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s main quad. 

As a genomicist (well, technically a genomicist in the making), our view of the natural world if often defined by our view of genomes. Everything can be analyzed as a series of four letters that, arranged in a certain way, produce the different species the we observe in nature. Variation in nature is just differences in architecture, differences in population structure, differences in expression. Even when we look at other things like ecological factors and behaviors, for example, these are frequently looked within the context of their relation to the genome. Don’t get me wrong, this is very important. This specialization is fundamental when becoming a scientist, as you need to have detailed knowledge of whatever system you are studying at the time. And I like it. I don’t mind spending my time in a computer writing Python code (without falling, thanks for asking) trying to find new ways to analyze genomes. This is what I “signed” in for, and I hope I can do it for years to come.

However, the genome is not everything. And this idea was prevalent throughout the course, at least for me. Hiking through the forest helped me to see biology with a different set of eyes, without having to think about nucleotides and SNPs. Yes, you obviously think about “wouldn’t it be fun to sequence x and y and see of the can find the genetic basis of z phenotype?”. And you think about it multiple times. For the birds, and the fungi, and the corals, and the spiders (oh spiders, who knew cornstarch could be so handy). But in that moment, as you’re standing in a trail in the middle of the forest with mud up to your knees, it ­doesn’t matter. Nature is not present as a series of letters in a terminal screen, nature is right there with you, probably producing a smell, a sound, colored in every shade of green imaginable, or trying to bite you.

And curiously, this makes me like what I do even more. I see where my work matters. And it doesn’t matter because of x or y SNP, or because of an inversion in chromosome four, or because this gene has a twofold change in expression. It matters because in the end, the importance of that SNP, that inversion, or that gene is that it creates that millionth shade of green in that plant, or the pretty shade of metallic blue in that bird. In the end, it is all about that. And I shouldn’t lose sight of it.





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