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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | academese (science)? | “ecosystem,” “zone,” “range”)

A biome is part of what we used to call the biosphere before that became a brand name right around 1990. The defining characteristic of a biome is its biota (living things in aggregate) more than climate or topography. If you can demarcate part of the planet with reference to its plants, animals, and micro-organisms, you call it a biome. Although the word properly denotes a region in the natural world, usually large but limited, it was first used commonly to refer to miniature, artificial environments, as in zoos or Biosphere 2, which was an attempt to create a self-sustaining colony that had some success, depending on whom, when, and where you asked. “Biome” was still primarily a technical term then, but available to the curious or well-read. In today’s language, the term is somewhat more likely to be used to talk about real natural environments (i.e., outdoor and independent of human-made boundaries). The word’s initial bias toward the fake probably resulted from the fact that when Biosphere 2 got going, we needed a word to refer to the distinct regions contained within it — ocean, desert, arable land, etc. — that wouldn’t be readily confused with the words we already had for the real things. Since “biome” was rarely used at the time (mainly in articles about zoos), it came in handy.

Within the last twenty years, “microbiome” and “gut biome” have become popular, building on the miniaturization associated with the parent term and pushing it further. Not that a microbiome is impossibly small, although it is very tiny by traditional biome standards, but that it is populated entirely by micro-organisms. We have them all over the place — on our skin, in various organs (not just the intestines), the bloodstream — and other animals have them, too. One supposes that micro-organisms have their own biomes composed of nano-organisms. But it’s organisms all the way down.

So far I have been trafficking in popular definitions, and I really should be more precise. The human microbiome, according to an NIH paper in 2007, means “collective genomes of all microorganisms present in or on the human body.” That’s much more satisfying phonologically, and tends to confirm a sneaking suspicion that without genomes, there would be no biomes. Although Webster’s Third defines “-ome” as “abstract entity, group, or mass,” in these words it seems to indicate totality.

Ecology has come a long way, baby. Even fifty years ago, we still saw the world in three zones: torrid, temperate, and frigid. (All good words, it’s true.) There were general terms for various ecological regions — savanna, rain forest, wetlands — but our understanding back then of what those terms meant seems so primitive and unnuanced. The rise of microbiology has changed everything. We break the planet into smaller and smaller pieces partly because we keep finding smaller and smaller constituent parts, which perforce alters the way we see and understand the large-scale creatures. First one biosphere became many, and those mini-biospheres begat biomes, which begat microbiomes. Those little suckers may be small, but they’re not too small to study.

Any Hank Williams appreciators out there? Sing along: “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the biome!” Farther west, it’s biome on the range. But stay away from the atomic biome tests.


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