Haunted by Frankenstein: Mapping and manipulating genes and genomes


Brigitte Nerlich is Emeritus Professor of Science, Language and Society at the Institute for Science and Society, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham. She blogs at Making Science Public and tweets as @BNerlich. Catch her at the Pint of Science Festival where she will talk about how we, as people, perceive stem cell technology.


200 years after Mary Shelly published her novel Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus and after at least a hundred years in which science and medicine have changed our lives largely for the better, we are still living in the shadow of Frankenstein and his creature. In the following, I’ll provide some examples of how the shadow of Frankenstein has loomed over every advance in genetics and genomics and ask whether it’s time to step out of the shadow and into the light.

It all began, I believe, with Jacques Loeb, one of the forefathers of modern synthetic biology. In 1909 Scientific American subtitled an article on  Loeb “The Achievements of the Scientific Frankenstein”; and on the centenary of that article, an article appeared provocatively titled “Controlling life: from Jacques Loeb to regenerative medicine” (it evokes Prometheus, not Frankenstein).

In 1953, Crick and Watson and Franklin discovered the structure of DNA. It seems that this breakthrough did not unleash a Frankensteinian backlash. This is perhaps not surprising, as the focus was on mapping rather than manipulating life.

In the 1970s, scientists began not only to map or read genes, genomes, and DNA but increasingly to manipulate these in the era of recombinant DNA and Frankenstein reared its head. Around the time of the famous 1975 Asilomar conference convened by scientists to talk publicly about the risks and benefits of recombinant DNA, Alfred Velluccci, Mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts said: “They don’t even know what’s going to come out of their experimentation,’ […] and suddenly they could crawl out of the laboratory, such as a Frankenstein”.

At the same time, IVF was being discovered by Edwards and Steptoe who were immediately framed, by some, as Frankensteins – by others as miracle workers. Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born in 1978 (see recent media analysis by Katharine Dow). Debates about the Frankensteinian nature of test-tube babies and of embryo research became more heated after the publication of the Warnock report in 1978 and subsequent regulations of embryo research.

In the 1990s, Frankenstein really came to life and Frankenwords become part of our ethical-social vocabulary. Click To Tweet

In the 1990s, Frankenstein really came to life and Frankenwords become part of our ethical-social vocabulary. There was a confluence of controversies: GM foods and crops, cloning, stem cells, tissue engineering, and also BSE or mad cow disease, which rattled public trust in policymakers. As Iina Hellsten said in her review of developments around so-called ‘Frankenfood’ on the web: “The metaphor of ‘Frankenfood’ was first coined in 1992. It rapidly spread into popular use at the end of the 1990s.”

Then we had the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996. Ian Wilmut became Victor Frankenstein to some and the science he did with many others at the Roslin Institute and Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh became Frankenscience, a word resurrected now in the context of the cloning of two macaque monkeys in 2018 – about two decades after Dolly. At the same time as Dolly was made public, a picture of a mouse with a human ear on its back circulated in the press in 1997, which didn’t really help promote a level-headed discussion, as it became “an icon of the grotesque“.

In 1998, researchers first discovered how to remove stem cells from human embryos and the up to then rather tame debate about the use of adult stem cells in regenerative medicine exploded. That was the time when Jon Turney published his seminal book Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture and that was also the time when I began to be interested in studying the ways in which these advances were framed and ‘metaphorized’ in the media.

Frankenstein, Frankencells and Playing God become common tropes. Click To Tweet

However, the 1990s also saw a project that focused attention away again from manipulation onto mapping and fortuitously it was completed in 2003, 50 years after Crick and Watson and Franklin discovered the structure of DNA: The Human Genome Project. As in 1953, we didn’t see a lot of Frankensteins in the reporting on the advances made by the Human Genome Project. This changed again when manipulation took over again from mapping, and, more importantly when ambitions to be able to ‘write’ the book of life superseded those of merely being able to ‘read’ it. This was the advent of synthetic biology; whose history reaches back to Loeb’s research that I mentioned above. Frankenstein, Frankencells and Playing God become common tropes.

Now we have gene or genome editing and its potential not only for better mapping and manipulating genes and genomes but also promising cures, yet again, for diseases. And sure enoug,h Frankenstein re-emerges.

Should we use the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s Frankenstein to look beyond the shadow of Frankenstein and celebrate some of the good things that have happened in science? Click To Tweet

200 years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, genetics and genomics have made important advances, perhaps not the huge strides we hoped for yet, but still; think about the millions of people who use synthetic insulin every day, the result of recombinant DNA research; the millions of test-tube babies that live happy lives; and, to jump into the present, think of the children who got new ears to replace their deformed ones, grown from their own cells.

Should we use the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s Frankenstein to look beyond the shadow of Frankenstein and celebrate some of the good things that have happened in science and regenerative medicine? I think Mary would approve.

Opinions in this blog post are that of the author, and not necessarily that of Hindawi. Profile photo provided by Brigitte Nerlich. The text in this blog post is by Brigitte Nerlich and is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Illustration by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.