What is a Gene? The Definitive Answer

I think the GenBank file spec gets the definition just right:

gene: A region of biological interest identified as a gene and for which a name has been assigned.

That’s basically it. If people call it a gene, it’s a gene.


They could mean:

  • a region in the genome that gets transcribed (or translated; but are introns no longer part of it?)
  • the nucleotide or amino-acid code in those regions
  • the “reference” nucleotide code that is expected in that region
  • the homologs of that (or othologs or paralogs or purposefully remaining fuzzy because it’s hard to say what’s what)
  • the regions of genome that cluster together across different organisms
  • a higher level concept that groups several proteins together through inferred orthology
  • (or perhaps even convergent evolution)
  • the protein encoded by the gene (or the general cluster of proteins)

In many discussions, gene is a good word to rationalist taboo. It clears up many mistakes when people are obliged to say what they mean by this tricky word.


Another good word to taboo is species when the organisms are bacteria

To even use the same word as we have for animals is probably a mistake. We need a word for “bacteria whose rRNA clusters together in nucleotide space” without all of the baggage of species.

And so we would replace a veneral biological concept with a computational definition: progress!

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