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.