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Beyond the human genome: microbes, metaphors and what it means to be human in an interconnected post-genomic world

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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 investigates 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.
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Keywords: Human Microbiome Project; life; metaphor; microbes; microbiome; self

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK 2: VU University Amsterdam, Athena Institute for Research on Innovation and Communication in Health and Life Sciences, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Publication date: March 1, 2009

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