November 17, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Genome editing, metaphors and language choices

Genetic Alliance and the Progress Educational Trust recently published a report entitled ‘’Basic understanding of genome editing”, based on research supported by the Wellcome Trust.

As I have worked on metaphors relating to genetic, genomics and genome editing for more than twenty years, I was particularly interested in this report. Unlike many other publications, including my own, which tend to focus on metaphors in the media, this report tells us how lay people use and understand metaphors when talking about genome editing.

In this post I’ll provide a brief overview of the report (in addition you can consult various overview articles by Sandy Starr and Sandy Starr and Jennifer Willows, for example). People interested in issues around genomics, metaphors and language, should of course also read the report and recommendations themselves.

The report emerged from workshops held at the beginning of 2017 with participants from the rare disease and (in)fertility communities. These workshops provided occasions to explore how these participants talked about genome editing (i.e. which metaphors they used spontaneously), but they also gave them an opportunity to learn more about this technique and reflect on the underlying concepts (and metaphors) used by scientists and journalists.

The genome

Many participants were familiar with the term ‘genome’ but unable to explain it. This is not astonishing, as in ordinary life we often use terms, such as, say, computer or carburettor, for example, without being able to explain how these things work. However, it surprised me to find that many thought the genome was a small unit of DNA, while ‘in reality’, the genome encompasses all of an organism’s genetic material (see p. 9).

Participants liked the phrase genome editing but were confused by other phrases such as genome engineering and genetic modification (see p. 14). They also did not understand or like the term CRISPR. This, and other insights, led the team to issue some useful guidance for genome editing communication.

Metaphors for the genome

Over the last thirty or so years, during and after the Human Genome Project, many metaphors for the human and other genomes have circulated in the public sphere. These have been documented and dissected extensively in peer-reviewed social science and communication science articles, books and chapters. Many of the metaphors discussed in this literature seem to have entered our collective consciousness and become part of our general ‘cultural imagination’.

Participants at the workshops used these metaphors quite freely and spontaneously. Examples are: recipe, roadmap, but most importantly book, text, letter, script and so on. More unusual were metaphors of ‘a picture of a whole living being’ or ‘a shopping list’. Not surprisingly, ‘blueprint’ was found to be somewhat outdated. Instruction manual gave participants space for more creative metaphorical elaborations in terms of assembling or breaking a LEGO set, for example. The same goes for script which was creatively extended as “different theatre companies staging very different productions of Romeo and Juliet even though the script is more or less identical (and is certainly always distinguishable from Hamlet)” (p. 19).

There were also reflections on the difference between ‘instruction’ and ‘information’, something that opens up quite difficult issues!

Metaphors for genome editing

While the genome was thus basically metaphorically pictured as some sort of ‘book’, genome editing was conceptualised in a more active way as word processing, with phrases like find and replace, copy and paste and cut and paste being commonly used. However, and interestingly, “’word processing’ as an explicit concept was alien to younger participants” (pp. 19-20).

Off-target effects of genome editing were also talked about, in terms of being the result of an “imperfect search function” that confuses, say, custard and mustard (p. 20).

The process of genome editing, which relies on a guide molecule that directs a nuclease to the relevant part of the genome and the nuclease which cuts DNA at he required site in the genome, was conceptualised as a combination of ‘satnav’ and ‘scissors’. People were, however, aware of some problems with these metaphors, as they are taken from very different conceptual source domains and as scissors evoke destruction, rather than healing (see p. 21).

People also discussed novel metaphors, such as cooking recipes and airport boarding passes, used in some videos, but found them quite confusing (p. 21).

The popular metaphors used by these participants should be compared with the metaphors for genome editing discussed in an article by O’Keefe et al. It seems that, yet again, old genomic metaphors are difficult to shift.

Popular culture

As expected, and as extensively discussed in literature regarding metaphors used when the Human Genome Project was made public, people also reflected on popular cultural framings of genomics and genome editing, such as Frankenstein and Brave New World. They did not find such references helpful though. One participant said, using a neat metaphor, that they elicited fear in an almost Pavlovian way (see p. 21). More recently, some popularisers of genome editing have claimed that they might be able to create unicorns or dragons. Such framing carry risks, participants observed, especially the risk of trivialising genome editing and distracting from its potential to cure debilitating diseases (see p. 21).

Designer babies

For many participants the phrase ‘designer babies’, a staple of popular culture, evoked images of consumerism and commodification. Some said for example, using an interesting metaphor, that one can’t ‘upgrade’ human beings, as ‘we’re talking about people, not phones’ (p. 16). Attitudes to the term ranged from “weary acceptance to fierce dislike” (p. 16). So, basically, this is a term or phrase to avoid in public discourse!

The future of genome editing

Many participants did not draw a clear distinction between somatic and germline genome editing and did not express any particular fears about the latter. In general they saw a lot of potential in this new genomic technology. Some used interesting metaphors to talk about its potential and promise, likening it to the Gutenberg press and the internet (p. 10). They hoped that genome editing would “increase the quality of life for affected patients, without necessarily bringing a cure” (p 11).

In general they were excited and optimistic, but also realistic about this new technology, with one participant, again using a creative metaphor, saying “that we are ‘a split second after the big bang’ and it is too soon to make detailed predictions” (p. 13). Well said!

Ethics and information

When discussing ethical and regulatory aspects of genome editing, one interesting insight emerged from the workshops. While participants were interested in discussing ethical  issues “they were keen to acquire a grounding in what genome editing is and how it could be used before holding forth on such issues” (p. 24). In short, they wanted to fill their knowledge deficit before engaging in ethical, social, legal etc. speculations about an emerging technology! Basically, paraphrasing Kant, badly: Ethics without information is blind. In short, knowledge/information deficits are not a good thing.

Other languages, other metaphors

The report ends with a call to hold similar workshops in other countries where other languages are used. This is a great idea! Some time ago I have tried to raise awareness of these issues around the metaphor ‘gene surgery‘ (not used by the participants) in English and German. It seems clear however that Germans have chosen ‘Genome editing’ as their ‘translation’ of choice for genome editing as in: “Durchführung von Fokusgruppen zur Wahrnehmung des Genome Editings (CRISPR/Cas9)” (Using focus groups to explore the perception of genome editing). This recent focus group research showed that (some) Germans seem to equate genome editing with genetic engineering (which has quite negative connotations) and that there is a division emerging between red and green genome editing that mirrors that in the debate about GMOs.

A French group of researchers discussed how best to talk about genome editing in French in an article entitled “Genome Editing and Dialogic Responsibility: ‘What’s in a Name?’. They studied French and Italian media coverage and found that ‘genome correction’ and ‘manipulation’ were most commonly used. However, they argue that ‘correction’ hides many aspects of ‘genome editing’ and ‘manipulation’ has too many pejorative connotations. They think that the use of ciseaux (scissors) or couper-coller (cut-and-paste) is too playful. In the end they recommend a metaphor that would not have gone down so well with the participants in the workshops, namely: ingénierie ciblée du génome (targeted genome engineering).

This is only the tip of the language and metaphor iceberg! More research is needed!

PS 19 November. Just heard from Bella Starling that people also discussed metaphors at a workshop arranged by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), working in partnership with the Wellcome Genome Campus (WGC) – more info here. Also, (HT@BioinfoTools) we must keep an eye on the difference between gene therapy and genome editing (this was hinted at in the report I summarised above). For a good overview of how they differ see Eric Topol here.

Image: It was impossible to find a free image that the participants in the workshop would have liked (see p. 27 of the report). So I used this one from Pixabay.

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