Friday, August 30, 2013

Synthetic Metaphors

Early in its development, the field of synthetic biology adopted the language of engineering to describe what its practitioners do - or dream of eventually doing.  Phrases like "genetic circuit," "programming DNA," and "cellular machines," became commonplace in the field.  Although synthetic biologists hope to refashion biology into a more predictable and controllable than it currently is, much progress needs to be made, and the complexities that are biology often defy prediction and control.

On August 28, 2013, Nature published an article, entitled "Communication:  Mind the Metaphor," that elegantly analyzes the advantages and pitfalls of adoping engineering metaphors into a field as messy and complicated as biology.  The article further points out the sociological role that language has played in the field:
Despite the necessary fluidity surrounding their use, engineering metaphors have proved so robust as to create an identity among merging research communities. Indeed, the power of metaphors resides in their ability to serve as translational devices between different articulations of science — an essential function when cross-field collaboration results in the building of a new discipline, as has been the case for synthetic biology.

As synthetic biology continues to evolve, some engineering words, phrases, and concepts will inevitably prove their worth, while others will be revealed as inapt.  Vocabulary and ideas from other fields may fill these gaps.  However, what the adoption of engineering language has revealed, at least in the case of synthetic biology, is that breaks with the past can sometimes foster commonalities among formerly disparate groups of scientists.