Reconstructing the concept of homology for genomics

Pittsburgh/London Colloquium on Philosophy of Biology and Neuroscience, University of London. Online at PhilSci Archive (2001)
Homology has been one of, if not the most, fecund concepts which has been used towards the understanding of the genomes of the model organisms. The evidence for this claim can be supported best with an examination of current research in comparative genomics. In comparative genomics, the information of genes or segments of the genome, and their location and sequence, are used to search for genes similar to them, known as 'homologues'. Homologues can be either within that same organism (paralogues), or among different species (orthologues). The importance in finding homologous genes within organisms or across species is that these similarities indicate the possibility of ascribing functions, mechanisms or structures which are required by a variety of species which present the same homology. The interest in structures and functions of genes and proteins common to multiple species is one of the main foci of comparative genomics. Because of this, research into the conservation of genes has been the basis of comparison with regards to homologous genes among diverse organisms. Different causal processes are involved in genetic pathways and mechanisms. Explanations of these depend upon which pathway, structure or mechanism is picked out. Each process has a different causal network to which different explanations refer. What comparative genomics explains are the different causal mechanisms which occur in processes such as differentiation, protein synthesis, and gene regulation. How these processes interact within the organism can only be understood when compared with organisms which possess homologous genes, gene sequences, similar developmental mechanisms, or those whose mechanisms for gene regulation are similar. Explanations which result from comparative genomics contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of both the complex structures and the diverse functions within the genomes of different organisms. There are two related problems which have plagued attempts to define the concept of homology. The first problem arises in clarifying what kind of similarity is involved in a homological comparison. A second problem occurs if more than one concept of homology is needed to pick out the kinds of similarity in different contexts of homological comparison. Homology is usually understood as picking out what counts as 'the same' between two or more organisms. Many of the attempts which have been made to define the concept of homology focus on which criteria are used to restrict the kinds of similarity which exist between two or more organisms or parts being compared. These are criteria which can be used reliably to infer shared ancestry. However, there have been many different attempts to define similarity which have produced a profusion of homology concepts. This profusion has led both to the conflation of what counts as 'the same' in different contexts and has also muddled the relations of comparison which various concepts use to identify homologues.
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