Field of Science

Biotechnology. Misunderstood.

David Kroll, veteran science blogger, educator and Director of Science Communications at the NC Museum of Natural History is having a hard time convincing someone of the importance of biotechnology and of communicating it to the public. As a scientist working at a biotech company myself, this seemed to be of particular interest to me and it also turned out to be particularly disconcerting. In this case David's correspondent happens to be Ms. Laura Combs, a former state environmental agency employee writing at a blog that seems to discuss diverse topics connected with medicine and the environment. Unfortunately that's not precluded her from inventing some rather strange ideas about the definitions and scope of biotechnology.

Ms. Combs seems to be an engaged citizen who genuinely appreciates the work done by the NCMNS, and that makes her response even more perplexing. The incident started innocently enough with the NCMNS organizing a 'Biotechnology Day' that showcased biotechnology research for the public. I believe this is an exceedingly important endeavor that should be encouraged, especially in the face of the growing importance of biotechnology and genomics in our lives. The presentations were split evenly between people from industry, academia and the agricultural sector; again, an entirely fair split since these three sectors are where the majority of biotech research takes place. 

Unfortunately the inclusion of industry in the museum's events sparked a backlash from Ms. Combs, which resulted in a lengthy correspondence with David and others at the museum. What left me the most nonplussed was Ms. Combs's definition of biotechnology as something antagonistic to the natural world and generally malevolent to humanity. Biotechnology, according to Ms. Combs, was not compatible with the "natural science" that the museum claimed to promote. Leaving aside the fact that the public dissemination of science should include all of science and not just "natural" science, unfortunately this seems to be a common foundational misunderstanding on the part of biotech opponents and it seems to ignore a lot of things, including a starting point in Darwin's great work "The Origin of Species".

Darwin kicked off his thoughts on natural selection in the first chapter of his book by reminding us of the artificial selection done on domestic animals and agricultural plants for hundreds of centuries. Yes, all these people who were practicing artificial selection were doing 'biotechnology' even if they had no knowledge of genes. But the overarching point that Darwin was getting at was that nature also practices biotechnology in the form of natural selection, and has in fact been doing so since the origin of life. This is probably the biggest mistake that biotech opponents make, to think of biotech as a wholly human invention. All of natural selection that involves the selective retention and manipulation of genes and phenotypes is biotechnology. In addition as David notes in his detailed reply, horizontal genetic transfer has been one of the key driving forces of evolution. Again, biotechnology. And perhaps Ms. Combs would like to know that about 8% of our genome consists of genes from retroviruses that were inserted during evolution. Thus, viruses were doing biotech with us long before we started doing biotech with them. The fact is that gene transfer and manipulation have been natural processes that we have very recently started to exploit. That also leads directly to Ms. Combs's criticism about GM foods. She is right in insisting that presentations regarding the benefits of GM foods need to be balanced with their possible side-effects, but she also seems to fall prey to a more basic and flawed belief that GM foods are fundamentally a new, man-made creature in the list of biological species. They are not. Nature has been trying out GM foods for millennia.

As a biotechnology scientist myself I was particularly distressed by the response, since I happen to study a particular form of biotechnology in my research that would not follow Ms. Combs's definition. My company uses the specific base pairing properties of DNA - one of its most amazing and fundamental features - to make drugs for cancer, psoriasis and other disorders. My research which has been pioneered by an academic lab has nothing to do with GM foods, I don't work for Big Pharma, and I am not manipulating anyone's genes. I am using entirely natural processes to help me find drugs for diseases which very palpably affect millions of people every year. In my case, nature is the entity that's allowing me to do biotechnology and I find this fact fascinating. I find it hard to see how Ms. Combs could be against the kind of research I am doing, but the major point as pointed out David is that biotech goes far beyond GM and into many areas of science like detergent manufacture, biodefense and health supplements. What I am doing is just one of its myriad manifestations.

Unfortunately, this kind of valid debate about the definition or pros and cons of biotechnology is undermined by Ms. Combs insinuations about the penalties paid by Big Pharma and their unethical practices. Ms. Combs seems to erect a classic straw man and points out the huge fines paid by Monsanto, Pfizer, Bayer and others for false labeling, bribes to doctors and other transgressions - and nobody's supporting these practices - but what on earth do these fines have to do with the scientific evidence for or against GM foods? This listing of pharmaceutical evils is completely tangential to the science of GM foods and smells suspiciously of guilt-by-association. In her emphasis on including equal time for critics of biotech, she also suggests the name of people who seem to be bonafide supporters of the vaccine-autism link. It's one thing to have a balanced debate, quite another to give voice to critics whose arguments are chiefly fueled by emotion and incomplete evidence rather than reason. 

Finally, she is not impressed by the inclusion of academic presentations in the museum's events because she says that universities "receive significant funds from industry to support biotechnology research". That part is especially amusing since the biotechnology revolution was launched almost entirely by academic scientists like Fred Sanger, Paul Berg and Hamilton Smith as an offshoot of basic, curiosity-driven research about the natural world. And a moment's research would have convinced Ms. Combs that the scientific underpinnings of biotechnology have been almost entirely taxpayer taxpayers like herself.

I am not singling out Ms. Combs for her objections and I do respect her general support of the museum and her regular visits to it. But she seems to have started a minor campaign on her blog to discredit the museum's attempts to help the public to understand biotechnology. This is disappointing. David has responded in as much detail as possible to her emails, and anyone who knows him would be aware of the tremendous and admirable work he has done for years in support of the public understanding of science; it would sound ludicrous for those of us who know his work to hear the allegation that he does not appreciate the merits of a balanced scientific debate. 

What I would like to say to Ms. Combs is this; biotechnology has been with us since the origins of life, and recombinant DNA is only the latest incarnation of a process that started billions of years ago. To say that biotechnology is at odds with the natural world is to completely ignore the biotechnology that nature has always practiced and to proclaim that man is not a part of nature. But more importantly, whether you like it or not, biotechnology and genomics are poised to enter the public discourse in ways that we can't even imagine yet. Genomic medicine is on the threshold of impacting public health and policy in a big way, and it promises to create new drugs for major disease and new diagnostics that will allow us to detect diseases like cancer earlier. Like other scientific developments, discoveries in the next few decades will make us confront novel social and moral issues. It's all biotechnology, knowledge that's based on the fundamental workings of the biological universe, and it will be upon us very soon. And as recent progress demonstrates, it will inevitably be developed by both academia and industry. 

Would it have unintended consequences? Of course it would, like every other technology. But that is precisely the reason to publicize it as widely as possible, to make sure that the public is aware of the most cutting-edge research in the field. If you are suspicious of biotechnology, then you should be the first one to make sure that museums all around the country organize biotechnology days to discuss, debate and present. About the worst thing you can do about a topic which you don't trust is to advocate that it should not be discussed in a public forum.

1 comment:

  1. It is rather duplicitous of you to suggest that somehow there is no difference between the human invention known as biotechnology and the results of natural selection.
    It does not take a brain the size of a planet to realize that there is likely a significant distinction between selecting for the fitness of a whole organism and meddling with single genes under the unique conditions of a biotechnology laboratory.
    That you are unable to make or likely accept this distinction in the absence of any real knowledge concerning the function of the genome beyond that of an underpaid accountant comes as no surprise.


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