November 3, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Gene surgery – Genchirurgie

On 22nd October 2016 Roland Jackson tweeted that he was going to Berlin to participate in a trilateral meeting of English (Nuffield Foundation on Bioethics), German and French bioethics committees on gene/genome editing. I tweeted back and asked whether there would be a report; he tweeted an older press release by the German Ethics Council about gene editing. I read the press release and began to ask myself some questions about the use of metaphors when talking about the genetic alteration of genomes in English and in German.

When reading the press release I saw that the phrase ‘genome surgery’ was used five times in this short statement. I was a bit surprised by that, as I am more used to reading about ‘gene editing’ or ‘genome editing’. I also felt that ‘genome surgery’ felt more like a metaphor than ‘gene editing’, which has already lost a lot of its metaphorical power, just like ‘genetic code’. However, I should also point out that ‘gene editing’ was used four times in the press release; so was almost on a par with ‘gene surgery’.

I then went to the German version of the press release and found the words ‘Genchirurgie’, ‘Genom Chirurgie’ and ‘genomchirurgisches Verfahren’ (genome-surgical procedure) (overall, ‘Chirurgie’ was used five times), alongside ‘Gen-editieren’ (used once in the headline, twice in the text).

This made me curious. Why did the press release use words related to (genome) surgery? Was the metaphor ‘Genchirurgie’ more commonly used in German than gene surgery was in English? So I searched around a bit on and respectively. These are the results for various phrases (30 October 2016).

gene surgery: 5,110                                               Genchirurgie: 3.070
genetic surgery 10,200                                          genetische Chirurgie: 322
genome surgery 5,730                                           Genomchirurgie: 812
gene editing: 514,000                                           Gen-editieren: 1.540

So the numbers for surgery are low in both languages and really low for German, but ‘Genchirurgie’ comes up more frequently as a search result on than ‘Gen-editieren’. ‘Gene editing’ dominates the English language and is probably also used quite frequently in German. The Deutsche Ärzteblatt for example says: “Dieses Gen-Editing ist einfach, kostengünstiger und effizient” and refers to “Therapie per Genchirurgie ” (This gene editing is easy, low cost and efficient; therapy through gene surgery) This, obviously, needs more research…

And of course, I’d like to know what the situation is in France around ‘chirurgie du gène‘, in particular as the French ethics council, the Comité Consultatif National d’Éthique, participated in this trilateral meeting. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the Franglais phrase ‘le gene editing’ is in common use.

Talking about the genetic alteration of genomes

I then asked myself why in German the preferred metaphor for new CRISPR-based ways of altering genomes seems to be gene surgery rather than the more usual gene editing.

I began to think back to a conversation I had recently had with my German parents. I had been to a meeting of the Nuffield Foundation on Bioethics for the launch of their ethical review of genome editing. When talking to my parents on the phone, I mentioned that I had been in London and muttered something about “Gen-editieren”. They didn’t understand a word and I didn’t blame them. I muttered some more about the fact that one could take genes out of genomes and put other ones in…. but you see the picture. They were still rather baffled.

Thinking back to this episode, I realised that I should perhaps have been talking about “Genchirurgie” or gene surgery instead of “Gen-editieren”. Editing doesn’t mean much to ordinary people, most of whom have never edited an article or a book. But most of them, especially older people, have had direct experience of surgery (knees, hips, backs, hearts etc.). So they can associate an image with the word. I wondered: Is that why the German Ethics Council prefers this metaphor over gene editing? But then I thought again. The same should be the case here in good old England. Not a lot of ordinary people edit things, but a lot of ordinary people have surgery. So that couldn’t quite be the answer.

Ethical implications?

I have to confess I am still none the wiser about whether and how one metaphor is used instead of another when it comes to altering the genome. Are there cultural differences? Are there some hidden linguistic or connotational differences? Do German speakers feel more comfortable with ‘Genchirurgie’? And if so why? Does that matter in a world where everybody speaks English and talks bout gene editing anyway? And are there any implications for public understanding, policy, regulation, bioethics, and, even, Responsible Research and Innovation, that might result from that difference in metaphorical framing? I am not totally sure. Answers on a postcard, please!

PS 2 March 2018 Gene editing and gene surgery are being discussed in Germany! Have a look here:

Image: Wikimedia Commons







Posted in responsible innovationScience Communicationsynthetic biology