Mixing Metaphors with Meaning

April 7, 2022 | William B.


As a budding biologist, I am familiar with the way metaphor is employed to effectively communicate scientific concepts.

For example, the molecule of the moment is messenger RNA, whose name represents the fact that mRNA is a transient molecule that transports information from the genome to the ribosome (the protein-making machinery), where it is translated into functional protein. Therefore, it was apt for scientists to use the “message” metaphor to classify this type of RNA when it was discovered in 1961, as the molecule carries the message written in the genetic code to the protein machinery.

However, I am increasingly thinking about metaphors in the other direction. That is, metaphors that start with observations in the biological world and lead to insights about life. How do concepts in biology communicate abstract meaning in my own life, and in the social world around me?

Particularly, at this moment, as I begin my Ph.D. career at MIT, I am drawn to the concepts of dormancy and reactivation. These concepts come in many different forms, with names differing by taxonomic class and metabolic state—but these ideas are providing me, and I hope others, with some real-life guidance.

Dormancy, or anticipating scarcity and resting

Dauer larva refers to a special developmental stage in the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans that occurs upon overcrowding, nutrient deprivation, and hot temperatures. Amazingly, this stage can last longer than the entire normal lifespan of the worm!

Dauer is a form of diapause, which is classified as a predictive dormancy encoded by a genetic program in an organism. In other words, some organisms have evolved to anticipate circumstances of scarcity and enter a state of metabolic rest prophylactically, before the actual period of scarcity begins. There are also reactive forms of dormancy that are referred to as states of cryptobiosis or anabiosis, where the metabolic rate is lowered, and various modes of DNA protection are deployed. These reactive states of dormancy may be more familiar to us mammals as sleep and hibernation.

Forms of sleep, in fact, are common to almost all animals with a nervous system and are considered essential for survival in normal conditions. Hibernation, on the other hand, is coupled to environmental change, but is also essential for survival in colder climates.

For the past two years, I have been outside of the traditional academic setting. Before last fall, I hadn’t entered a classroom—in-person or virtually–in more than 24 months, which is the longest I’ve gone without formal schooling since I was 2 years old. However, I was in a research setting. To extend the metaphor, I was in a state of dormancy–still alive and working diligently in the realm of where I wanted to be in the future, but not quite fully active and independent.

Layered on top of my personal career dormancy has been the pandemic that nearly every person on the planet has experienced in different ways. For many of us, we’ve been living in a state of social dormancy over the past two years, due to the presence of an environmental threat. Although not altogether a genetically encoded response, our dormancy does serve a function: to exchange our personal dormancy for the relative dormancy of the SARS-CoV2 virus. As we are reaching the 2-year anniversary mark of the pandemic’s beginnings in the US, a question is now arising: when will this period of dormancy end?

Reactivation, or waking up

Reactivation from dormancy is not as well studied as the state of dormancy itself or its beginnings, possibly because it is harder to predict. The taxonomies of biological reactivation programs are less numerous, but examples are everywhere. Desert blooms after a rare rainfall and the 17-year resurfacing of cicadas are some of the most dramatic examples of natural reactivations. There are also microscopic and synthetic examples of reactivation. For example, when I thaw a vial of frozen cells preserved in a viscous glycerol medium, I am reactivating cells from a state of dormancy.

As I start a new in-person (!) semester at MIT, I know I am not alone in my journey. Increasingly, many incoming graduate students have work experience in between their undergraduate and graduate years. Also, the hundreds of students entering the Institute this year will all have had some experience with the concept of dormancy over the past year and a half. In fact, the entire Institute will have experienced pandemic-induced dormancy, which we are slowly but surely coming out of.

Astutely, my department—Course 7 (Biology)—hired Sinisa Hrvatin, a scientist whose made a career out of studying dormancy. Although I don’t think he is planning any case studies of pandemic-related social dormancy—yet.

To be clear, I see dormancy as a lively and essential state. It is a transformed way of life to adapt to temporary environmental change. I don’t believe that MIT as an educational environment has been fully inactive over the past two years, but I do believe we are going to play a part in its reactivation.

In confronting the uncertainty surrounding the re-awakening of MIT and the broader world and the ever-present global uncertainty related to the pandemic, I will be increasingly looking to the diverse world of life and biology to remind me of future possibilities.

I invite my peers to join in these observational studies, as it has been a source of grounding and hope for me. The practice of finding meaning through extending biological metaphors has deepened my connection to both my chosen field of study and the world at large.

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