Monkeying Gods

So, as you may have noticed, I’ve become rather interested in synthetic biology.

It’s new, it’s exciting, and no one is quite sure how it will progress, which puts everyone in unchartered waters. I like unchartered waters. Sailing into the unknown, facing new adventures, challenges and above all, excitement.

That’s the thing about synthetic biology. It is exciting. Something new is always exciting, even if it can be a little scary.

Because it is a rather new field in science, it is starting to get rather a lot of media attention. And when science meets the media, we go into even murkier waters.

Journalists today don’t always have the time to do some digging to get stuck into the nitty gritty of a new science story. They are also not experts in a field like synthetic biology, so getting your head around it takes time too. As a result, press releases become the source of all information. Press releases come from the universities where the research has been conducted, and draws attention to the university, its prestige, and also its research.

One example that became rather newsworthy at Imperial was that Synthetic Biology was one step closer to become the new Industrial Revolution of our time. This is a very big statement to make. The Industrial Revolution changed our way of living. It brought with it new technologies, new disease, new beginnings. But with all this innovation also came increased poverty, disease and overcrowding.

Obviously as a label, Industrial Revolution, suggests an era of change, reflected in an upwards jump of output and productivity. the application of science to production, mechanisation, manufacture, industry, urbanisation. These were, irreversible, cumulative. The next generation could imagine themselves as richer than their parents had ever had been.

This is the framing that Synthetic Biology took with this particular piece. The Industrial Revolution in Synthetic Biology has the potential to change, revolutionise, genetic biology. It could bring new technologies, new ideas, new collaborations, endless, yet unthought of possibilities.

The way a subject is framed needs to be considered very carefully, as the media uses frames and metaphors as devices to constrain debates or to make things more interesting/accessible. They could be interpreted as a method of persuading the reader to see a subject in a particular light. For example, when GM foods first hit the headlines, there was a lot of noise about Frankenfoods (which still happens). As the non-scientific public garner most of their scientific information from the media, if they start seeing headlines with Frankenfoods, or Playing God in them, it holds certain connotations. Frankenfoods relates to Frankenstein, and Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, where Robert Walton tells of Frankenstein creating a terrible Creature. By saying scientists are playing God, people question who gave them the right, the power to mess with life as it is? Life that is sacred, natural?

Brigitte Nerlich has studied how Synthetic Biology has been framed by the media. Some example metaphors she found include: a digital map, unravelling the book of life, artificial life, playing God, rewriting the operating software, a cookery book with various ingredients, living machines, lego, etc etc

At the Synthetic Biology and Conservation meeting I went to, synthetic biologists were said to be “monkeying around” by one of the conservation biologists. By saying this, he is implying that they are just playing, messing about, not aware or caring of the consequences, they are wasting their time. This was just one person’s opinion, and yet it got into a few posts online (ETC Group, Futerra, Phenomena) so it obviously made an impact.

The synthetic biologists on the other hand thought that the conservation biologists needed to “cheer up”, that they were too mournful, sad. The conservation biologists framed their discipline based on extinction, loss of species, we want nature restored to how it was. They were sad, and they framed their science so. If this comes across to the public, the public don’t respond as much to sadness as too excitement.

Be wary though, too much excitement, or hype, could be a bad thing. For example, in a Nature article by Roberta Kwok, the metaphor of synthetic biology as lego is considered a bad one, as the pieces do not fit well together into a coherent whole. So the hype about synthetic biology as lego is giving the public a false image of what is really happening.

Another metaphor that was used at this meeting was that of the Date. This was the “First Date” between synthetic biologists and conservation biologists. What does this mean? Was it a blind date? A set-up? An interview? We’ve all been on bad first dates, and a first date is normally associated with anxiety, nervous sweating, and sometimes uncomfortable silences. Flipping the coin, we can also have great first dates where things hit off from the word go! The question is: what happens next? Do synthetic biologists and conservation biologists go on a second date? Are they going to jump into bed with each other? Or did one say they would call, but never did? These are all connotations of this metaphor, and as you can see, it can carry many meanings.

But synthetic biology should be careful, they don’t want to go down the same path as the GM debates of the 1990′s. If they can learn from those lessons, and have open and honest dialogues with the public they’ll be on a much better footing. By having transparent conversations, and framing their science in a balanced way, they will be able to build up more trust with the public, and hopefully, more acceptance.

Image credit Amit Rawat, Flickr.

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