By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD
In a recent Letter to Nature, researchers from the Scripps Research Institute announced that they had successfully engineered a bacterium that could recognize and replicate DNA containing an unnatural base pair (UBP). Their publication, entitled “A semi-synthetic organism with an expanded genetic alphabet”, demonstrated that E. coli could recognize, take up, and utilize man-made nucleotides to reproduce a plasmid containing a base pair of the synthetic nucleotides, faithfully replicating the UBP for over 20 generations (read more about it in our post about the paper).
The findings presented by the authors are incredibly exciting and have huge implications for future research in genetics, microbiology, and medicine. The presentation, however, is concerning. The authors refer to their strain of E. coli as “semi-synthetic.” Such a term could, for non-scientists (or even the scientist with a highly active imagination), conjure up images of some half bacterium-half robot, a sort of Frankenstein’s monster bacterium manufactured by man in the lab. What they actually have is a strain of E. coli carrying two plasmids, one that expresses an algal transporter able to import the synthetic nucleotides, and one containing the UBP. The introduction of plasmids into bacteria is a staple of biological research, and non-native proteins are regularly expressed in microorganisms from E. coli to yeast for countless research and industrial purposes. Are these microorganisms, then, also considered semi-synthetic? Referring to this E. coli strain as such actually does the findings a disservice, as part of what makes this report so exciting is that a common organism could recognize and utilize synthetic nucleotides with its own DNA replication machinery. The idea of an “expanded genetic alphabet” is also somewhat of a stretch, as the second plasmid contained a single UBP but was otherwise composed of canonical, naturally occurring A-T/G-C base pairs. This single UBP wasn’t utilized in any biological or genetic function; it was merely maintained during plasmid replication. Can we consider this UBP a true expansion of the genetic alphabet if it is not interpreted for inclusion in a bacterial function? Do the lofty terms used in the title sensationalize the story in an effort to attract an audience?
For trained scientists, this issue may seem minor; after all, would anyone outside of the research sector truly read or pay attention to this paper? If the research results become a news story, they might. In fact, the bigger problem is the communication of this research to the general public by the media, which further sensationalized the story. CNN even published an article entitled “New life engineered with artificial DNA.” One merely needs to glance through the comments section of the online article to understand the backlash of such a claim. Is this organism really “new life?” Is “artificial DNA” perhaps an overstatement?
The current climate of public attitude toward health science and genetic research is bitterly divided. Consider, for example, the well-publicized, acrimonious debates over vaccination, pharmaceuticals, and GMOs. Articles that imply scientists are “playing God” by “creating new life” only increase suspicion and inflame anti-science sentiment among groups already wary or contemptuous of health and science research. While it’s important to draw readers and sell stories, sensationalizing the science inhibits fair dialogue over the subject and detracts from the value of the scientific discovery.
The advancement of science needs public support – financially, politically, and even in terms of morale – which we can only gain through transparency and the communication of accurate information in the interest of educating the public. As research scientists, good communication starts with us. We have the responsibility to ensure our findings are clearly and truthfully conveyed to any audience, including among the research community. In turn, it is up to science writers and journalists to ensure the appropriate communication of scientific research to the public, in a manner intended to do more than sell stories. Science, itself, is sensational. Let’s not allow fabricated drama to take away from the excitement and wonder of scientific discovery.