Reference is a source of information that we use to ascertain something. We use references all the time, every day. In diagnostics, we compare a method at the local laboratory to a reference method at the main laboratory. In our everyday lives, we attempt to classify every person we meet by comparing them to our personal reference.
But what happens when we realize that the reference is no longer valid? That the reference isn’t true enough to be called a reference? That it’s merely one of many examples of the studied phenomenon.
As with our human reference genome, GRCh38. More and more studies reveal that the individual that we sequenced might not be the golden standard that we thought it was. This standard genome seems to be lacking a lot of sequences compared to other human populations. So what do we do? Do we assign a new reference genome? Or is it even possible? Maybe there is no such thing as a reference genome. Maybe we just have to accept that there are different genomes without adding the prefix “reference” to any of them.
But this is difficult for us to do. In whatever field, we strive for a frame of reference. We need something to compare with. We need that shiny golden standard.
A reference can be useful, but sometimes it can obscure our field of vision. Sometimes the reference prevents us from seeing the whole picture.
We have to be flexible enough to realize when our reference needs adjusting. But we also have to reconcile that sometimes there is no way of assigning a reference, we simply have to accept things for what they are.