Synthetic Biology Still Not a Story

Americans know little about the emerging field, poll finds

According to a recent poll, Americans know very little about synthetic biology, which seeks to genetically engineer new forms of life or endow existing ones with novel powers. Part of that may be the press’s fault. While the field has drawn increased media attention over the last seven years or so, it is still not seen as a major story.

Last week, Peter D. Hart Research Associates and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies released the results of a poll of 1,001 U.S. adults, which found that only 22 percent of Americans have heard of synthetic biology. That is a big jump from the mere 9 percent that said they’d heard about it in 2008, the first year the survey was conducted. Given the rapid progress of the science and its impressive potential benefits and detriments, however, awareness could be much higher.

Scientists expect to use synthetic biology to create microorganisms that can produce fuels or medicines, fight disease, or clean the environment. Possible disadvantages include the fabrication of new weapons, environmental contamination, and modern-day eugenics. Clearly, the field represents a far leap beyond traditional genetic engineering, which usually involves the transfer of existing genes between organisms.

A number of recent articles have ably summarized these basic tenets. The most illustrious example is perhaps an 8,000-word feature in the September 28th issue of The New Yorker by Michael Specter. Headlined “A Life of Its Own — Where will synthetic biology lead us?” the piece offered a comprehensive roundup of milestones in the still-adolescent field, its leading researchers, and the hopes and fears that surround it.

Efforts to artificially synthesize life address “the central project of biology,” Specter explained, which is “to understand how DNA creates and perpetuates life… No scientific achievement has promised so much, and none has come with greater risks or clearer possibilities for deliberate abuse.”

Specter included a number of revelatory quotes to support this point, such as one in which a scientist cut short an interview to meet with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security. “They are asking the same questions as you,” the scientist told Specter. The article contained very little new information, however, and exemplified one of the challenges in covering synthetic biology: despite fairly brisk progress in the field, traditional news pegs are hard to come by. It isn’t every week that researchers rewire E. coli to produce vitamin A, for instance. Because of the early stage of the research, the story remains highly technical, hard to “localize,” and a tough sell to editors.

A Factiva database search of American newspapers and magazines turned up less than one hundred results (eighty-eight to be precise) for “synthetic biology” for all available dates. The search was by no means scientific; but if anything, it probably overestimated the coverage. (For example, the Oakland Tribune published a number of articles about a new biofuels institute at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007, which mentioned synthetic biology in passing but did not go into detail.)

Disappointingly, the press largely missed the last great opportunity to delve into the subject. In August, the J. Craig Venter Institute was able to insert a natural genome that had been modified in a yeast cell (in other words, a partly synthetic genome) into a bacterium and activate it, creating a strain of the bacterium “that had not previously existed.” Scientists described it as the penultimate step to the creation of an entirely new life form. The final step would be to insert a completely synthetic genome into a bacterium and activate it. J. Craig Venter, who runs the eponymous institute, predicted his team would accomplish that feat by the end of this year.

Unfortunately, the American journalists almost entirely overlooked that research. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, they did better. In the U.K., The Times ran with the bold headline, “Artificial life is only months away, says biologist Craig Venter.” The Financial Times’s story began, “Biology is approaching its Frankenstein moment - the creation of life from scratch.”

Those ledes are a little overzealous, given the difficult nature of the work and all that could delay the attainment of that goal (Venter has been saying that we’re on the “brink of artificial life” for years). But The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia hit the nail on the head when its science editor, Deborah Smith, wrote that, “This dawn of synthetic life will come as a surprise to many; the research has progressed rapidly, below the radar of most people except interested scientists and concerned onlookers.” (The article is unfortunately unavailable online.)

To be fair, many reporters have tried to spread the word. The field had its first major success in 2002 with the construction of a live poliovirus from scratch using only chemicals and no living cells. That prompted The New York Times to publish a front-page news article, a Week in Review brief, and an editorial about the threat of “Synthetic Bioterror.”

More articles followed in 2004 when Jay Keasling, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that he would try to synthesize the anti-malarial drug artemisinin (which he accomplished in 2006). In 2005, Drew Endy, a synthetic biologist at MIT (now at Stanford) got some attention when he founded BioBricks, a company that produces standardized DNA “parts” (like those used in electronics or automobiles) for genetic engineering projects. That year, Wired ran one of the first long magazine features on the topic under the headline “Life, Reinvented.” And in 2006, Discover named Keasling its first ever Scientist of the Year.

Coverage began to take off (relatively speaking) in 2007 when the Venter Institute inserted a natural genome of one bacterium into another and “booted it up,” converting one life form into another. Then, in 2008, his team finished building the largest man-made DNA structure ever, the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium. Both stories earned the “Lots of Ink” label at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

There have been many other good explanations of synthetic biology along the way, of course, from USA Today and The Washington Post to the Associated Press and Stanford Magazine. But focusing on major developments published in peer-reviewed journals isn’t the only way to cover the story.

The most important and popular angles are efforts to synthesize organisms that produce clean fuels and that fight disease. But an interesting alternative, for smaller outlets especially, is the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, an undergraduate synthetic biology contest run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, The Capital Times (unfortunately, unavailable online) in Madison, Wisconsin, and other regional newspapers have run stories on local students creating biological “machines” that fight cancer; detect arsenic in water; or simply make the room smell like bananas. NPR did a story about using synthetic biology to brew better beer.

Given this body of work, perhaps one should thank the press for helping elevate American awareness of synthetic biology from 9 to 22 percent, rather than faulting journalists for the low figure overall. Many outlets, such as the Los Angeles Times, have hardly touched the subject, however. That won’t do.

“We probably have at least five years grace before synthetic biology has reached the point where new regulations become really urgent. But that is not reason to procrastinate,” opined an August editorial in the Financial Times, “[I]f synthetic biology is to win public approval while avoiding unnecessarily stifling regulations, scientists must lead an open debate about its risks and rewards.”

True, but it’s the press’s job to foster and facilitate that open debate. Scientists readily admit the “scariness” of the new technology. The risks and rewards of synthetic biology are not something we should wait to discuss until after the first artificial life form has been created.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.