As many of you know, I am not a fan of the BBC's science editor David SHUKMAN! I have previously written about his lack of scientific understanding concerning synthetic biology and extinction. I have also produced videos where I go into detail about why he is not up for the job and why he should not be reporting on sensitive subjects he knows nothing about. I even wrote a letter of complaint about him to the BBC and encouraged others to do the same regarding his fear-mongering piece on synthetic biology. The BBC, however, decided to ignore mine and others' complaints; as once again Shukman is reporting on the subject he has shown to know nothing about - synthetic biology.
The title of the article is 'Will synthetic biology become a GM-style battleground?' and before I read the first word I knew it would be up to his usual standard on the subject. This is because at the beginning before any text there is a picture with the caption "The manufacture of DNA is central to the emerging science of synthetic biology". The problem here is that the picture is of a triplex which has nothing to do with synthetic biology. It's not like this is a simple mistake that could be missed by a novice, as each strand in the diagram is a different colour. There is also no mention anywhere in the article about triple helixes, groove binding agents, or secondary structures.
Shukman as usual does a terrible job of explaining what synthetic biology is and even refers back to a video he produced last year in which he turned a duplex into a 6 by 10 grid of code. This is so mind-bendingly stupid I don't even know how to approach it, and it showed the level knowledge and understanding he had then; and continues to have to this day. He also referred to synthetic biology as a "dimension beyond genetic modification" and a "new field" when nothing could be further from the truth. The term 'synthetic biology' is somewhere between a buzz word and an umbrella term encapsulating well understood areas of science. This has led many scientists, including myself, to question whether or not synthetic biology is a new field, or simply an extension of previous research.
However, Shukman claims there is a difference, as “GM involves taking genes from one organism and inserting them in another, synthetic biology involves designing and creating artificial genes and implanting them instead – not just borrowing from the natural world but rewriting it or even reinventing it.” The mistake here would not be so hilarious were it not for the fact that the rest of the article focuses around the BioBrick Foundation conference which took place in London last week. For those who don’t know, a BioBrick is a sequence of DNA that is programmed for a certain function. These BioBricks can be arranged in a certain sequence, turning organisms into miniature factory lines, allowing them to respond to certain stimuli, etc. However most BioBricks are not made from code produced from the imagination of scientists and ARE found in nature. For example, previously in my career, I have investigated a mutant riboswitches potential to accept a liberty of non-natural ligands. To do this I had GFP (green floresent protein found in nature) under the control of the riboswitch I wanted to investigate (reference found in nature and mutant only had slight modifications) under the control of a lac promoter (also found in nature). According to Shukman, my reference system would not be an example of synthetic biology and neither would a lot of the research discussed at the conference. Likewise, if you wanted to express a protein found in nature but you polyhistidine tagged it, according to Shukman this would be an example of synthetic biology as you are rewriting the code.
Shukman later on actually does a good job of describing some of the applications of synthetic biology under investigation by the scientists attending the convention. These include bacteria engineered to detect pathogens in drinking water, to alleviate suffering from cystic fibrosis, etc. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised and gained a little respect for the guy. It was however short lived when he later referred to synthetic biology as a far more radical technology and that it is in it’s infancy. He also said that it “ponders hope to convoke people of the likely benefits before they are put off by negative stories about the risks” but never gives any example of these risks – probably because they don’t exist.
As I have previously said the ability to genetically modify something is a tool and not the product. Kind of like fire which you can use to keep you warm at night or you can use it to burn down laboratories investigating genetics. This point is always missed by people like Shukman which shows either their lack of understanding or their deceitfulness. Don’t get me wrong there ARE potential dangers and unforeseen side effects with altering an organisms code but this does not mean that every GMO out there its going to bring down humanity
In closing I find it ironic that Shukman has written an article about the hopes of scientists that the general population will accept synthetic biology, considering he has done so much in the past to damage its reputation. Even though this article does cast the subject in a positive light, it is peppered with the biased views of Shukman, and is yet another example of his lack of understanding, and why he should not be in the job.