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”.
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.