You know an urban neighborhood is up and coming when it gets an abbreviation like “SoMa,” for the district south of Market Street in San Francisco. So it goes, apparently, with emerging sciences like synthetic biology, which Eleonore Pauwels, a public policy expert who studies the subject, often refers to as “synbio.”
Buzzwords are not all, however.
In a report released Wednesday by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, DC, Pauwels and co-authors say that newspaper coverage of synthetic biology, which involves the design and construction of novel life forms, is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. The number of articles published between 2008-2011 was almost three times higher than in the preceding four-year period, and it was roughly six times higher, in aggregate, across six European countries (Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands).
“The main question underlying synbio is, what does it mean to live in a world where humans are creating life—where they are actually synthesizing life? It’s a huge question, so I’m not surprised there is an increase in coverage,” says Pauwels.
The climb started in 2003, but synthetic biology has “burst onto the mainstream” since 2008, according to the report, and three events, in particular, drove headlines. In January 2008, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced that they had constructed the first synthetic genome and, in May 2010, the same team reported that it had created the first synthetic cell by inserting a manmade genome into a bacterium and activating the manmade DNA. Following the second announcement, President Obama asked his bioethics commission to study the implications of the rapidly progressing research and offer recommendations for oversight and regulation of synthetic biology.
With progress comes scrutiny, and that’s been reflected in the media. More attention has brought a greater focus on the ethical issues and risks associated with synthetic biology, especially in Europe. “American press coverage still emphasized the benefits of synthetic biology but is less rosy than it was between 2003 and 2008,” according to the Wilson Center’s report, and while biosafety and biosecurity are the most popular pegs for articles in the US, ethics is now a close third. The potential payoffs of synthetic biology are still front-and-center in a lot articles, however.
“What’s of interest is that synbio is a revolution in manufacturing,” Pauwels says. “It’s a new way of doing the economy. It’s the molecular economy. You’re going to produce bio-value—new ways to produce everything from plastics, to fuels, to medicines. That’s a really interesting narrative to use in this time of economic crisis, and it’s something you can sell as a growth engine.”
Energy and health products are the most common applications described in the press, but with synthetic biology still in an early stage of development, coverage in the US and Europe continues to focus on studies at universities and research institutes rather than companies and commercial enterprise, though attention to the latter is growing.
Thankfully, since 2008, the American media have presented a more balanced account of the potential risks and benefits of various pursuits in the field, bringing the coverage more in line with the “precautionary” variety found in Europe.
“Articles are more nuanced, so there is an improvement that way,” Pauwels says.
But hype is still a problem, she adds. For instance, a feature article published in May by The New York Times Magazine reported that the designer microbes being developed by J. Craig Venter, the mastermind behind the eponymous, news making institute, “might save the world.”
“You have a lot of storytelling that’s nice to read,” says Pauwels, “but it conveys a lot promise that you probably should not make at this point of the research.”
Part of the problem is language. Pauwels is working on a paper, to be published next year, about the use of metaphors in the coverage of synthetic biology. From Legos to “biobricks” there is “extensive use” of engineering metaphors, in particular, she says. Often coined by scientists and industry, these terms bleed into the press and foster a narrative of safety and control.
Yet metaphors swing both ways. Venter, for instance, likes to use expressions such as “creating life” that trigger discussions about ethics and hubris, according to Pauwels.
“You have Venter appearing everywhere, so it echoes those questions of what does it mean to synthesize life, but also what does it mean to master life for one person, one industry, one big monopoly,” she says. “It raises questions also about ownership of life.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the word, “Frankenstein,” appears frequently in articles about synthetic biology, according the Wilson Center’s report.
Over the last ten years, the monstrous moniker was also widely applied in coverage of genetically modified foods and led to widespread fear of the technology, especially in Europe. With that in mind, the synbio community has tried to distance itself from the GM debate in an effort to avoid the same fate, says Pauwels.
When Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued its report on oversight and regulation of synthetic biology in 2010, as per the president’s request, one recommendation read:
When discussing synthetic biology, individuals and deliberative forums should strive to employ clear and accurate language. The use of sensationalist buzzwords and phrases such as “creating life” or “playing God” may initially increase attention to the underlying science and its implications for society, but ultimately such words impede ongoing understanding of both the scientific and ethical issues at the core of public debates on these topics.
Indeed, despite the fact that worries about genetic-modification technology are more prevalent in Europe, when the White House released the National Bioeconomy Blueprint in April, it did so rather quietly out of concern for the upcoming election, according to Pauwels.
Fortunately, that didn’t stop the press from covering the strategy document, which outlines steps like investing in R&D and facilitating the transition of research from lab to market to drive progress in synthetic biology. With such broad and ambitious goals, not only is coverage on the rise, but general consciousness of the field as well.
The Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project, which produced the report on coverage, has conducted a number surveys, which found that public awareness of the field in the US rose from a mere 9 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2010 (awareness is lower in Europe). Another survey is planned for early next year, and Pauwels expects that the curve will continue to rise, but progress will be key.
“If a technology is not fruitful, you reach a level of saturation in coverage,” she says. “That’s what happened with nanotechnology. There was a lot of coverage in the beginning, and a lot of hype, but the research is progressing slowly these days. We’ve seen tennis rackets made with new, lightweight nano-materials, but few other applications. It didn’t change the way we treat cancer or make energy.”
For coverage to stay strong, synbio will have to avoid the same quagmire, but for now at least, it’s a hot story getting hotter.Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: biology, Craig Venter, DNA, genetic engineering, genome, life