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When a Scientific Metaphor Becomes a Burden

In any science, it’s hard to talk to the outside world without resorting to metaphor and analogy. That is especially true for the nascent field of synthetic biology, which promises to apply the ideas of engineering to life, as I detail this week in The Chronicle Review. At some level, really, synthetic biology is nothing but an extended metaphor.

Yet such metaphors, designed to convey complex science to the public, could be why the expectations of synthetic biology have gone so far beyond its capabilities. By “debiologizing” the work, the metaphors of computing and Lego bricks suggest an advanced understanding of the function, reliability, and purpose of living organisms that is often at odds with what’s known in biology. At least, that’s the case made by Eleonore Pauwels, a research scholar who has studied synthetic biology for the past few years at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“If researchers … are aware of the relative weakness of the analogy around the ‘software of life,’” she writes in a new study, out soon in BioScience, “the narratives produced in its wake might affect not only public perceptions and trust but might also have broader ramifications that would influence debates on safety assessment and ownership.”

No one scientist, communicator, or journalist is responsible for how synthetic biology has been conveyed to the public. But when the Wilson Center conducted several focus groups on synthetic biology in recent years, they discussed in particular one paragraph, from a well-known article by The New Yorker’s Michael Specter:

[Scientists] in the field, who have formed bicoastal clusters in the Bay area and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, see cells as hardware and genetic code as the software required to make them run. Synthetic biologists are convinced that with enough knowledge, they will be able to write programs to control those genetic components, programs that would let them not only alter nature but guide evolution as well.

The hype building off such easy metaphors pains some scientists. Take Timothy S. Gardner, who helped invent the field with Jim Collins back in the late 1990s. Gardner is vice president for research and development at Amyris, one of the most prominent synthetic-biology start-ups. I reached him on the phone last year, while he was checking out the firm’s new fermenting facilities in Brazil.

He’s frustrated with how the public sees the field. People seem to think scientists can literally design an organism from scratch, he said. And he can’t blame them if they think designer dinosaurs are just a few years off.

“That’s fueled by the hype a lot of scientists generate,” he said. “They are intentionally blurring the line between science fiction and science fact. … Ultimately we do a disservice to ourselves to blur that line.”

At times, such hype seems almost part of the scientific process. It’s happened before. See nanotechnology. Or biotechnology. It will happen again. See Big Data. It’s all part of a modern regime of innovation built on “technoscientific promises,” as Pauwels put it.

Indeed, based on the center’s research, which amounts to several large national polls and a cluster of focus groups, the public may be more savvy than expected. When briefed on synthetic biology—by 2010 one-quarter of people had heard of the discipline—the public expressed neither candid optimism nor unilateral rejection.

People were intrigued by the potential for doing good. And yes, they also expressed wariness of the field, but they were less worried about scientists’ ”playing God” than about their failure to admit uncertainty.

Amyris’s Gardner rarely has the time to publish, given how he’s been pushing the 100 researchers that work under him. (“We’ve literally been in a sprint for five years,” he said.) But this year, he did write a short essay for Trends in Biotechnology, laying out his thoughts on the field.

It still has revolutionary implications, he writes. But its most profound result could be a way of communicating, as biologists finally learn to standardize how they talk about biological function. The processes used to “characterize, archive, and communicate the function of biological parts are wholly inadequate,” he writes. They must do better.

There’s another metaphor that can be applied to synthetic biology, he adds. And this one might be a bit more apt, given where things are:

“Relative to its ambitions,” he writes, “synthetic biology is where aerospace engineering was in the 1800s—pre-flight.”

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