All the News That’s Fun to Print

Scientific dialogue and that in the popular press can diverge radically.

Why not explain that natural selection has already “engineered” the most invidious creatures imaginable?

It’s a fun time to be a biologist. The Science paper from the J. Craig Venter Institute on reengineering a Mycoplasma cell using the techniques of synthetic biology stole the media spotlight for several weeks in May and June, and will likely be debated in blogs, tweets, and podcasts for many months to come. The first evaluation delivered in Faculty of 1000 deemed it “exceptional” and “proof of concept,” further suggesting it would initiate interesting scientific and philosophical discussions. Indeed, the discourse among thought leaders in Nature, Edge, and other science publications has been thoughtful and far reaching—a journal club on steroids.

Whether or not this is just about tools, as some have suggested, or a major discovery, as others propose (see the quote by Freeman Dyson on page 18), the achievement of the Venter group in putting it all together is impressive. Tools count. Sydney Brenner recounts in “My Life in Science: As told to Lewis Wolpert,” how genetic engineering techniques aroused fear and protest in the public in the 1960s. Yet, he points out, having recombinant tools on hand when the AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s led to full sequencing and characterization of the virus in just a year, in what could have been 20 years with standard methods. The doors that are opening, via synthetic biology techniques, will provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand the biological mysteries associated with evolution, genetics, and metabolism—in short, the essence of life.

Still, techniques and basic research may be a bit much to expect the lay public to champion, and the press was not exactly nuanced, for the most part, in its presentation of the experiment. For many, the take-home message is that biology now has the power to decimate the known world as surely as physics demonstrated 60 years ago. Only this time, instead of instant death from nuclear detonation, our bodies may be invaded by rogue organisms that eat us slowly from the inside out. Why not explain that natural selection has already “engineered” the most invidious creatures imaginable, and that we ourselves have been playing God in the realm of bioengineering—not to mention non-bioengineering: think BP oil spill—for nearly a century.

Speaking of playing God, another paper judged “must read” by F1000, published in Science a week before Venter et al. hit the stands, received much less attention. Scientists presented data showing the dramatic effect that climate change is already having on biodiversity in Mexico, where 12 percent of lizard populations have disappeared from hundreds of surveyed sites. They project that in the next 70 years, 1 in 5 lizard species will no longer exist anywhere on the planet, the result of rising temperatures.

Is the difference in press coverage between the synthetic genome experiment and the disappearing lizard data that the latter has a take-home message about responsibility resting with each of us, rather than behind mad scientists’ closed doors? In another of many insightful anecdotes in Brenner’s book, he relates: “I once gave a lecture on the irresponsibility of society because that seems to me the real issue…The people polluting the universe aren’t the scientists, but everybody’s mother, with detergents and so on.” A sharp reporter’s eye might even connect the dots between these two stories, showing how the ultimate goal of developing biofuels from engineered microbes, when realized, might jump-start a “save-the-lizards” campaign.

Meanwhile, tucked away in our pages of scientific dialog, the conversations around synthetic biology have been stimulating—from debates on the implications for science to musings on the ethical and philosophical. Just as physicist Erwin Schroedinger was moved to write the slim and piercing book What is Life in 1943, we are moved to the same query today, armed with ever more revealing particulars. Which leads me to our new column, “Thought Experiment,” launched in this issue (p. 27). To paraphrase another of Brenner’s keen observations, science is a social activity of the highest sort, and it’s crucial to keep up the conversation doing “experiments with words.” From these, great ideas will emerge.

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