Equivalent of MS DOS "start" command.

In gnome, I can click on a file and the correct application to open it will be started.
  In Windows, I can get the same functionality from the command line by typing "start (somefilename)"
  I can't seen to find an equivalent feature in Linux, so am beginning to suspect that it is gnome matching up the file with its application.
  If I were to start writing such a utility, where would I find sample code how the GUI does it? Or is there already a POSIX command and I've never run across it?
  (What I'm actually trying to do is implement Python "os.startfile" on Linux.)
Vernon Cole
(sent from my 'droid phone)

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