June 7, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

New genetics and society: A retrospective

I am in a collecting mood at the moment [I have updated this collection/blog post on 17 January 2022]. When I heard that an article (with Carmen McLeod and Rusi Jaspal) on faecal microbial transplants had finally been accepted by New Genetics and Society, I began to count back and realised I had published quite a few articles in this journal (mostly written in collaboration with other people, such as Iina Hellsten, David Clarke, Aleksandra Stelmach and Kerry Kidd), articles that, at least in part, chart the progress of ‘new genetics’ in society.

Of course, there are many topics I have not covered in New Genetics and Society, but have talked about elsewhere; and there are many topics I have not covered anywhere at all, neither in New Genetics and Society nor any other interdisciplinary journal. New genetics and society is a vast field!


It all started in 2003 with an article written with David Clarke entitled “Anatomy of a media event: how arguments clasehed in the 2001 human cloning debate”. That was about a now long forgotten but then very sensational staged media debate between two fertility ‘experts’. We thought that analysing such an event could be interesting, as such spectacles may shape public perceptions of an emerging technology; they can accelerate policy changes by exposing scientific, legal and ethical uncertainties; the use of images, metaphors, clichés and cultural narratives by scientists and the media engaged in this event can reinforce stereotypical representations of cloning; and they can also expose fundamental clashes in arguments about cloning.


A year later, in 2004, Iina Hellsten and I published an article entitled “Genomics: Shifts in metaphorical landscapes between 2000 and 2003”. Iina and I had ‘met’ in the year 2000 when we discovered by accident that we were both submitting something on Dolly the sheep and cloning to the journal Metaphor and Symbol. Fortunately, both our articles made it into the journal and we have collaborated on issues related to genomics, avian flu, climate change etc. ever since – and also met in person.

This paper examined the shifts and changes in the metaphors used to describe the human genome and the human genome project (HGP) between 2000 and 2003, with the year 2001 as a trigger for genomic and metaphorical reflection. We asked: Did the findings announced in 2001 shake the metaphorical foundations on which the HGP had been built or not? Did novel metaphors capture the imagination of scientists and the public or did old metaphors survive throughout this period? What influence might the continuity or discontinuity in metaphorical framing of the HGP have on the public perception of the HGP as well as on its scientific understanding? To answer these questions, we systematically compared the metaphors used in one major scientific journal, Nature, and in one major UK newspaper, the online edition of the Guardian/The Observer during a period of two months around June 2000, February 2001 and April 2003.

Despite some differences between Nature and the Guardian, on the whole linguistic metaphors of the human genome as a book and a code on the one hand and the visual metaphors of a map or blueprint on the other hand, were carried over into thinking and talking about post-genomics and proteomics. Only very few alternative metaphors were introduced into the debate. Continuity in metaphor use was more prominent than discontinuity. New metaphors challenged neither old metaphors nor established paradigms of thinking and writing about genomics.

The human genome

A year after that, in 2005, Kerry Kidd, then a research fellow at the Institute for Science and Society, and I edited a special issue for New Genetics and Society on the human genome and metaphors. This issue, tracking how concepts of a new science, genomics, filter into the public domain, contained articles by Iina Hellsten on how book of life metaphors get ‘updated’ over time (e.g. the metaphor of ‘annotation’, which later cropped up again in epigenetics), Martin Döring on German press coverage of the human genome project, Elena Gogorosi on Greek press coverage of the human genome project, Cheryl Koski on the human genome project and the technological imperative, and Alan Petersen et al. on medical genetics in news story and the cross-talk between science fact and science fiction. It also contained an “Introduction” by Kerry and myself.

This special issue complemented other work undertaken at that time, for example in a special issue on the meanings of genomics published by New Genetics and Society (Calvert & Hauskeller, 2004) and a special issue on genomic discourses published by Discourse & Society (Nerlich et al., 2004). It added new dimensions to these volumes by exploring in more depth cognitive, cultural and historical differences in genomic discourses.

The microbiome

Then a few years passed and new genetics moved on from the genome to the microbiome. Iina and I charted that change in an article entitled “Beyond the human genome: Microbes, metaphors and what it means to be human in an interconnected post-genomic world”. The article was published in 2009. Little did we know that a decade later the microbiome would ‘explode’, so to speak.

Four years after the completion of the Human Genome Project, the US National Institutes for Health launched the Human Microbiome Project on 19 December 2007. Using metaphor analysis, this article investigated reporting in English-language newspapers on advances in microbiomics from 2003 onwards, when the word “microbiome” was first used. This research was said to open up a “new frontier” and was conceived as a “second human genome project”, this time focusing on the genomes of microbes that inhabit and populate humans rather than focusing on the human genome itself. The language used by scientists and by the journalists who reported on their research employed a type of metaphorical framing that was very different from the hyperbole surrounding the decipherment of the “book of life”. Whereas during the HGP genomic successes had been mainly framed as being based on a unidirectional process of reading off information from a passive genetic or genomic entity, the language employed to discuss advances in microbiomics frames genes, genomes and life in much more active and dynamic ways.

Faecal microbial transplants

Related to the topic of the microbiome is that of issues with the imbalance of friendly/unfriendly bacteria in the gut, such as Clostridium Difficile and potential remedies for such ailments. One of them we (Carmen McLeod, Rusi Jaspal and myself) have discussed in an article entitled “Fecal microbiota transplants: emerging social representations in the English-language print media” for NGS and in a blog post for the Microbiology Society Blog.

Synthetic biology

And then…. along came synthetic biology. So, of course, Iina and I had to write something about the metaphors used to frame that new genetic enterprise. The 2011 paper was entitled metaphorically “Synthetic biology: Building the language of a new science brick by metaphorical brick”. We prefaced our article with a quote by Richard Jones from 2010, which still resonates today: “How much do we need to worry about a few arguable metaphors? Here, more than usually, because it is these ideas of complete control and the reduction of biology to the digital domain that are so central in investing the visions of synthetic biology with such power.”

In this article we examined metaphors used in English-speaking press coverage to conceptualise a new type of (interdisciplinary) bioscience: synthetic biology. Findings showed that three central metaphors were used between 2008 and May 2010. They exploit social and cultural knowledge about books, computers and engines and are linked to knowledge of three revolutions in science and society (the printing, information and industrial revolutions). These three central metaphors are connected to each other through the concepts of reading/writing, designing and mass production and they focus on science as a revolutionary process rather than on the end results or products of science. Overall, we observed the use of a complex bricolage of mixed metaphors and chains of metaphors that root synthetic biology in historical events and achievements, while at the same time extolling its promises for the future.


At the same time as synbio emerged on the new genetics horizon, another new field began to make itself heard, namely epigenetics. Aleksandra Stelmach, then my PhD student, now co-worker and colleague, and I made a first incursion into the metaphorical landscape emerging around that field. The article entitled “Metaphors in search of a target: The curious case of epigenetics” appeared in 2015 in a special issue devoted to epigenetics and society.

Carrying out research in the fields of genetics and genomics and communicating about them would not be possible without metaphors such as “information,” “code,” “letter” or “book.” Genetic and genomic metaphors have remained relatively stable for a long time but are now beginning to shift in the context of synthetic biology and epigenetics. This article charts the emergence of metaphors in the context of epigenetics, first through collecting some examples of metaphors in scientific and popular writing and second through a systematic analysis of metaphors used in two UK broadsheets. Findings show that while source domains for metaphors can be identified, such as our knowledge of electrical switches or of bookmarks, it is difficult to pinpoint target domains for such metaphors. This may be indicative both of struggles over what epigenetics means for scientists (natural and social) and of difficulties associated with talking about this, as yet, young field in the popular press.

If you want to read more reflections on epigenetics, there is a collection of blog posts here and an article dealing with the mis-use of epigenetics in sociology and marketing here.

Genome editing

I contributed to an article written by a group of experts led by Paul Martin entitled “Genome editing: the dynamics of continuity, convergence, and change in the engineering of life“. The paper presents a multidisciplinary analysis of the contemporary development of genome editing and the tension between continuity and change. The analysis focuses on how genome editing is emerging in different domains and whether this marks continuity or disruption in the way that biotechnology is carried out disseminated and so on. We looked at clinical, agricultural, and industrial applications (human healthcare, transgenetic plants and animals, DIY genome editing and biosecurity), intellectual property and commercialisation (patents, commercial developments), metaphors, cultural framing and enrolling publics, and finally, ethics, regulation and governance.

Gene drive

The latest and possible last contribution to this collection of articles for NGS is one on gene drive entitled “Gene drive communication: exploring experts’ lived experience of metaphor use“. In this article we use thematic analysis to examine thirty interviews with gene drive science and communication experts, and stakeholders, focusing on how they talk about their lived experience of metaphor use in the context of gene drive communication, including their struggle to remember salient metaphors and their reflections on which metaphors to use and which to avoid. We discuss the significance of our findings for research and practice of responsible science communication.


Image: Pixabay: Literature


Posted in biotechnologygenomicsMetaphorsmicrobiome