Manipulating Nature

by Eva Amsen

A few weeks ago I was trying to explain to some humanities and social sciences graduate students that genetic manipulation has been done for centuries. We’ve always been manipulating nature through selective breeding, and genetic engineering is just a different way to achieve a similar goal faster. They gave me some strange looks, as if I had just made that all up.

Two days ago, this cartoon ran on PhD Comics, illustrating engineer Jorge Cham’s surprised reaction to learning how cells can be manipulated to produce specific antibodies. The biomedical student replied: “Yeah, you learn that your first year”.
manipulating nature - phd comics
And today the media are overflowing with news about the first organism with a completely man-made genome. Given that my two examples above show how even highly educated people outside of the field of Biology are not familiar with the things you can do with basic manipulation of DNA, you can imagine the general response of amazement and disbelief that man-made, working DNA would have.

Personally I’m amazed by iPhones and Bluetooth and Google Earth and GPS. Really? They can DO that now? This is because my knowledge about computer science stops somewhere around the concept of Boolean Logic and “Hello World”. I don’t understand how this type of technology works, it all seems very futuristic. Everyone has access to everything from everywhere. Quite 1984, in a way. And yet I don’t panic about it. Most people don’t. It’s just considered new and useful technology.

But when it comes to BIOtechnology everyone is suddenly surprised and shocked by everything. Really, a lot of this is not new and it’s not as shocking as news releases would have you believe. Carl Zimmer explains this to the readers of Wired, so the message hopefully reaches enough of an interested audience, but it really seems like a lot of basic concepts of current molecular biology – the things you can do with it – are not at all understood by many people, and every well-publicized small step forward seems stunningly ridiculous to the public.

Humans can synthesize complex molecules? We can edit DNA and put it into cells? Bacteria can use artificial genes that look like their own?

“Yeah. You learn that your first year.”

I figured out how to check Facebook using my phone – I don’t exactly know how this works, but I know it’s possible and I can use this technology. Now everyone else please learn what biologists can do using DNA – you don’t have to know the molecular details, just know what the technology is capable of and how it is currently used.

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Dan Rhoads January 25, 2008 - 7:52 PM

Oh there’s hype and exaggeration all the time with science in the news. No doubt there. And Jorge Cham’s surprise at what molecular biology has made capable is disappointing. And Venter’s advances in synthetic biology amount at this point to little more than showing off.
But you have to admit that Venter’s achievements are newsworthy – even if they are advances of degree, not kind. Even if, like you say – what will synthetic life be used for, that current molecular biology cannot do already?

P J January 25, 2008 - 8:40 PM

Eva, this is certainly an instructive analogy you draw, between technology and biotechnology. However, I can’t help wondering whether the general public’s shock or concern following the announcement of major advances in biotechnology research – even when that research is based on techniques or principles that have been around for a long time – might have something of an ethical aspect to it, stemming from the not necessarily ill-founded concern many people have about the ethics of the manipulation of living organisms. (New forms of technology don’t typically involve the manipulation of organisms or their constituent elements, so it’s not surprising that most people don’t panic about new technologies.)
Of course, synthesizing a novel biological molecule is far from such hot-button ethical concerns as cloning or embryonic stem cell research, but a response of disbelief or amazement to the possibility of any of these may well arise from a general and undifferentiated ethical concern about the possibilities of where such advances may lead. While distinctions between the ethical acceptability of molecular synthesis and cloning or stem cell research should certainly be made (based, of course, on an awareness of the difference between them, something that can only be the product of education, as you suggest), I hope that we will always pay at least some attention to the ethical content of the public’s response to the latest and greatest biotechnology advancements, even if the ethics of the simple-yet-still-shocking-to-the-general-public techniques that underlie such advancements are at present uncontroversial.

Eva Amsen January 25, 2008 - 8:49 PM

I didn’t elaborate much on it, but you’re right about the difference in ethics of course. Only, some technological advances have ethics problems too: I hinted at it by mentioning 1984. Everyone can pretty much take pictures of everything with their phone and directly post it online. It’s hard to control what happens with pictures people take of you, you might not know when a picture is taken, actions and locations are easily traceable, etc.
The ethical concerns are different, but they do exist for technological advances as well.

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