February 16, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

In the shadow of Frankenstein: Mapping and manipulating genes and genomes

I was starting to prepare a talk for Pint of Science in May, for “The Body” strand, which this year here in Nottingham focuses on regenerative medicine and genetic engineering. It’s entitled “GMYou”. I know, it’s a long way off, but they needed a title and so I began to muse. In the end I homed in on the topic du jour for 2018: Frankenstein.

200 years after Mary Shelly published her novel Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus and after at least a hundred years in which science and medicine have changed our lives largely for the better, we are still living in the shadow of Frankenstein and his creature. Have a look, for example, at this article published in Science at the beginning of this year entitled “Creating a modern monster”. This contains a picture of a Franken-man and his organs…. Is this the right way to talk about genome editing, tissue and organ engineering, bionics and so on?

In the following I’ll provide some examples of how the shadow of Frankenstein has loomed over every advance in genetic and genomics and how, in the process, we became hooked on this metaphor.

The 1910s

It all began, I believe, with Jacques Loeb, one of the forefathers of modern synthetic biology. In 1909 Scientific American subtitled an article on Jacques Loeb “The Achievements of the Scientific Frankenstein”; and on the centenary of that article an article appeared provocatively titled “Controlling life: from Jacques Loeb to regenerative medicine” (it evokes Prometheus, not Frankenstein).

The 1950s and 60s

In 1953 Crick and Watson and Franklin discovered the structure of DNA. It seems that this breakthrough did not unleash a Frankensteinian backlash. Around 1967, various scientists talked about deciphering ‘the book of life’, a metaphor that would become much more popular around the year 2000, when, yet again, Frankenstein just seemed to be waiting in the shadows. This is perhaps not surprising, as the focus was on mapping rather than manipulating life.

The 1970s and 80s

In the 1970s things progressed quite rapidly, as scientists began not only to map or read genes, genomes and DNA, but increasingly to manipulate these in the era of recombinant DNA (which also led to the creation of controversial transgenic animals, discussed in a book entitled The Frankenstein Syndrome, Rollin 1995).

Despite efforts by scientists to engage with ethics, law and the public sphere, the media and public conversations evoked Frankenstein. Around the time of the famous Asilomar conference convened by scientists to talk about recombinant DNA in 1975, “Alfred Velluccci, Mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose rantings helped to eject Walter Gilbert and his work from Harvard [said] ‘They don’t even know what’s going to come out of their experimentation,’ […] ‘It could be anything; contamination, infections, and suddenly they could crawl out of the laboratory, such as a Frankenstein’.” (see Dixon, Current Biology, 2003)

All this was picked up by academics and discussed in articles with titles such as “The Frankenstein Factor” (Willard Gaylin, New England Journal of Medicine, 1977) and “Frankenstein and recombinant DNA” (H. J. Morowitz, Hospital Practice, 1979).

At the same time, IVF was being discovered by Edwards and Steptoe, who were immediately framed, by some, as Frankensteins – by others as miracle workers. Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born in 1978. The Sun surprisingly quoted Steptoe: “Mr Steptoe, who lives on the moors above Oldham, does not consider himself a medical wizard or a modern Frankenstein tampering with nature.” (12 July 1978) (see recent media analysis by Katharine Dow).

But as the social scientist Michael Mulkay wrote in his seminal 1996 article “Frankenstein and the Debate over Embryo Research”: “What could be more natural than to fill in the missing parts of the test-tube baby story along Frankensteinian lines?” (1996: 158) Debates about the Frankensteinian nature of test-tube babies and of embryo research became more heated after the publication of the Warnock report in 1978 and subsequent regulations of embryo research.

The 1990s

Skipping lots of developments, let us now look at the 1990s, a period when Frankenstein really came to life (and to regenerative medicine) and when Frankenwords become part of our ethical-social vocabulary.

At the end of the 1990s, we see a confluence of controversies: GM foods and crops, cloning, stem cells, tissue engineering, and also BSE or mad cow disease, which rattled public trust in policy makers.

GM tomatoes caused a stir in 1994 (although here in Nottingham Don Grierson had invented a variety in the 1980s), followed by many other controversial developments, especially in Europe, around GM foods and crops. As Iina Hellsten said in her review of developments around so-called ‘Frankenfood’ on the web: “The metaphor of ‘Frankenfood’ was first coined in 1992. It rapidly spread into popular use at the end of the 1990s.”

Then we had the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996 (in which another University of Nottingham alumnus, Ian Wilmut, had a hand).  Wilmut became Victor Frankenstein to some and the science he did with many others at the Roslin Institute and Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh became Frankenscience, a word resurrected now in the context of the cloning of two macaque monkeys in 2018 – about two decades after Dolly.

At the same time as Dolly was made public, a picture of a mouse with a human ear on its back circulated in the press in 1997, which didn’t really help promote a level-headed discussion, as it became “an icon of the grotesque“. Even more Frankensteinian speculations were fanned by maverick scientists hyping up the prospects of human cloning. And then, of course, there was also BSE and the panic it caused around food and health which undermined trust in science and policy.

In 1998 researchers first discovered how to remove stem cells from human embryos and the up to then rather tame debate about the use of adult stem cells in regenerative medicine exploded. While some framed stem cells as a ‘magic table cloth’, others evoked Frankenstein. Indeed, one of the many new Frankenwords was added to our vocabulary: Frankencells.

That was the time when Jon Turney published his inspirational book Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture and that was also the time when I began to be interested in studying the ways in these advances were framed and ‘metaphorised’ in the media and I haven’t stopped ever since.

Howsever, in 1990 a project started to focus attention away again from manipulation onto mapping and fortuitously it was completed in 2003, 50 years after Crick and Watson and Franklin discovered the structure of DNA: The Human Genome Project. As in 1953, we didn’t see a lot of Frankensteins in the reporting on the advances made by the Human Genome Project. There was hope that we would read and map and decode the book of life and find new cures for diseases on the way.

The 2000s

This changed again when manipulation took over again from mapping, and, more importantly when ambitions to be able to ‘write’ the book of life superseded those of merely being able to ‘read’ it. This was the advent of synthetic biology; whose history reaches back to Loeb’s research that I mentioned above.

Synthetic biology positioned itself on the one hand as a green revolution, there to save the planet, but on the other hand there was talk of ‘artificial life’ and of ‘engineering’ life – topics that instantly evoked Frankenstein and, yet again, ‘Frankencells’ (Craig Venter himself used that epithet).

As has now become the custom, this topic was then also explored (and, in a sense, amplified) by social and communication scientists, for example under titles like “Playing God in Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Synthetic biology and the meaning of life” (Henk van den Belt, 2009) or “’Knight in shining armour’ or ‘Frankenstein’s creation’? The coverage of synthetic biology in German-language media” (Gschmeidler & Seiringer, 2012) or “Frankenstein 2.0.: Identifying and characterising synthetic biology engineers in science fiction films” (Meyer et al., 2013).


Now we have gene or genome editing and its potential not only for better mapping and manipulating genes and genomes but also promising cures, yet again, for diseases. And sure enough Frankenstein re-emerges, not only in the press, as for example in this Financial Times piece by a renowned science writer, Anjana Ahuja, but also in a 2016 book by Jim Kozubek entitled Modern Prometheus. Synthetic biology, regenerative medicine and genome editing also feature in a 200th anniversary edition of Mary Shelley’s novel, edited for scientists and engineers working in these and other emerging science areas.

When gene editing was recently attempted for the first time within the human body, in this case the body of  Brian Madeux, a comment underneath a Guardian article reporting on this advance said: “So, Madeaux [sic] becomes the first genetically modified human being or GMHB”, leaving the door wide open for the Frankenstein myth to insert itself into the debate about science and medicine and perhaps ‘the topic of GMYou’ yet again.


200 years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, genetics and genomics have made important advances, perhaps not the huge strides we hoped for yet, but still; think about the millions of people who use synthetic insulin every day, the result of recombinant DNA research; think about the millions of test-tube babies that live happy lives; and, to jump into the present, think of the children who got new ears to replace their deformed ones, grown from their own cells.

Let’s use the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s Frankenstein to leave behind the shadow of Frankenstein, created by a hundred years of clichés, and step out into the light. Let’s celebrate some of the good things that have happened in science and regenerative medicine! I think Mary would approve.

Image: Wikimedia Commons: Details from Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights (1560)

Posted in genomicsLanguageMetaphorssynthetic biology