Open Access

From metagenomics to the metagenome: Conceptual change and the rhetoric of translational genomic research

Genomics, Society and Policy20095:1

DOI: 10.1186/1746-5354-5-3-1

Published: 15 December 2009


As the international genomic research community moves from the tool-making efforts of the Human Genome Project into biomedical applications of those tools, new metaphors are being suggested as useful to understanding how our genes work - and for understanding who we are as biological organisms. In this essay we focus on the Human Microbiome Project as one such translational initiative. The HMP is a new 'metagenomic' research effort to sequence the genomes of human microbiological flora, in order to pursue the interesting hypothesis that our 'microbiome' plays a vital and interactive role with our human genome in normal human physiology. Rather than describing the human genome as the 'blueprint' for human nature, the promoters of the HMP stress the ways in which our primate lineage DNA is interdependent with the genomes of our microbiological flora. They argue that the human body should be understood as an ecosystem with multiple ecological niches and habitats in which a variety of cellular species collaborate and compete, and that human beings should be understood as 'superorganisms' that incorporate multiple symbiotic cell species into a single individual with very blurry boundaries. These metaphors carry interesting philosophical messages, but their inspiration is not entirely ideological. Instead, part of their cachet within genome science stems from the ways in which they are rooted in genomic research techniques, in what philosophers of science have called a 'tools-to-theory' heuristic. Their emergence within genome science illustrates the complexity of conceptual change in translational research, by showing how it reflects both aspirational and methodological influences.