Open Access Open Badges Case Study

Generalization through similarity: motif discourse in the discovery and elaboration of zinc finger proteins

Celeste Michelle Condit1* and L Bruce Railsback2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Speech Communication, 110 Terrell Hall, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA

2 Department of Geology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA

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Journal of Biomedical Discovery and Collaboration 2007, 2:5  doi:10.1186/1747-5333-2-5

Published: 3 October 2007



Biological organisms and their components are better conceived within categories based on similarity rather than on identity. Biologists routinely operate with similarity-based concepts such as "model organism" and "motif." There has been little exploration of the characteristics of the similarity-based categories that exist in biology. This study uses the case of the discovery and classification of zinc finger proteins to explore how biological categories based in similarity are represented.


The existence of a category of "zinc finger proteins" was based in 1) a lumpy gradient of similarity, 2) a link between function and structure, 3) establishment of a range of appearance across systems and organisms, and 4) an evolutionary locus as a historically based common-ground.


More systematic application of the idea of similarity-based categorization might eliminate the assumption that biological characteristics can only contribute to narrow categorization of humans. It also raises possibilities for refining data-driven exploration efforts.