The failed promise of genomics
Ironically, in certain circumstances, praise can do more damage than insult. One of my favourite television shows, Dylan Moran’s Black Books, has an episode in which the protagonist, Bernard Black, has a date ruined by one of his friends. However, instead of telling his date what a miserable bastard Bernard actually is, she does so by playing him up as impossibly brilliant (saying that he paints, and speaks seven languages, etc). Later, after things have begun to fall apart, he wheels on his friend and shouts: “You! What did you say to Kate? She thinks I’m the Renaissance!” I bring this up because an analogous relationship exists between Science, the Media, and the Public.
Perhaps in no place is this relationship so clear (in recent years at least) as it is with the subject of genetics & genomics. I often talk about “the failed promise of genomics”, and let me explain what I mean by that. If you ask a scientist: genomics is a fascinating field with a great many applications. It has been a vital step in understanding life and its tools will remain valuable in facing the challenges biology presents. It is the blueprint on which we will build many further endeavours. If you ask a journalist or (ugh) soft sci-fi author, genes are magic. Okay, maybe it isn’t that bad. But it’s close. And it becomes a problem when we look at scientific literacy and have to ask: who is the public getting their information from? Because it sure as hell doesn’t seem to be the scientist.
The Human Genome Project started in 1990. Even if there was a little bit of awareness before that, the HGP turned it into an obsession. Such is the vanity of H. sapiens. Suddenly genetics and genomics were catapulted from the scientists toolbox to the public eye. By the time the drafts were released in 2000 and 2003, we had genomania.
Genetic engineering and gene therapy had entered popular entertainment with films like Jurassic Park and Gattaca and games such as Metal Gear Solid and Bioshock. Our fiction portrayed genetics as mystically resurrecting dead species, fuelling dystopias, and granting abilities on par with magical powers. And the journalism on the subject hasn’t been much better. Over the past two decades we have been presented with everything from ‘obesity genes’ to ‘gay genes’ to a gene for every disease under the sun. Genes were suddenly the cause of and solution to everything.
But why does this happen?
Here we come upon one of the general principles involved in the distortion of science. Science is hard. It is a complicated field of study with a staggering amount of depth (biology with its irregularities and great breadth doubly so). Journalists have neither the training nor the time to accurately report on research. Genetics however has a simple, even elegant explanation. To the novice, a system of cause and effect presents itself. You can almost convince yourself there is a perfect little Mendelian world running with as much surety and clockwork as Newtonian physics. But once you reach the level of genomics (and especially if you look into the newer studies of epigenetics and proteomics) this elegance breaks down. Such a breakdown isn’t pleasant. There is a parsimony and sense of ‘rightness’ to the “if I have gene A then I have trait A” paradigm. I have been in classes with students who have had total meltdowns over finding out that that is simply not true.
A full discussion of why that isn’t true is beyond the scope of this blog, but let me just throw out some examples: gene A might have multiple different alleles leading to multiple different products, each of those alleles might go through different processing, transcripts of gene A might be degraded by the protein product of gene B, the protein product of gene A might be degraded by the cell unless you also posses just the right amount of the protein product of gene C (or hell, maybe gene A doesn’t even get transcribed without gene C’s product promoting it!), maybe the protein product of gene D dimerizes with the protein product of gene A rendering it inactive (or maybe that is the only way to render it active), etc. And reasons like these just scratch the tip of the iceberg. The number of possible snafus in the pathway from genome to phenotype are so numerous that there is no such thing as a classic Mendelian single phenotype genetic disorder (something I will discuss in greater length if I ever get around to doing a write up on one of my favourite journal articles: Loscalzo, et al. 2007)
So what we have here, is an incredibly complex system with an enticing misconception just waiting to be picked up and ran with. It is a misconception that makes sense, it is a misconception that makes people happy, and it is a misconception that promises power over and easy solutions to all of the ills that surround us. The problem is that it doesn’t exist. And the scary part comes when you realise that it is kind of like crying wolf. How long until the public says: “Oh, geneticists, bah, they promised to cure my cancer and let me grow wings and have a dog-opus and make me not fat. I didn’t get none of that. And now scientists are asking for more money? Screw em.”
The human genome gives us a blueprint. Nothing more and nothing less. And don’t get me wrong. That is huge. But it is not the finished product. You can’t sit down and fly a jet, just because you have the blueprints. Hell, you can’t even necessarily build a jet just because you have the blueprints. But it is a vital step, and a really solid start. The problem is that “the failed promise of genomics” is really a misnomer. Because genomics never made these promises (well…perhaps we should say that it never made these promises outside of over-enthusiastic grant proposals). The media made promises for it, and the public becomes disappointed and disillusioned with the field when scientists can’t deliver on promises they never made in the first place. And without the support and funding of the public, science is going to fall flat.