While it may be debated whether Craig Venter’s newly announced creation of a synthetic genome controlling a bacteria is a stupendous breakthrough or just hype, one thing is certain: it has got the public talking.  I am fascinated reading the threads of comments following articles about this on the web.  They really give me, a scientist-in-training, a glimmer of the public’s feelings and understanding of science and scientists.

Take this thread for example in response to the BBC’s “Have Your Say: Will synthetic biology do more harm than good?”  The public seems to have a bit of a B-rated sci-fi flick mentality when it comes to science.  They hatch up all sorts of doomsday plots including one of my favorites: what if these bacteria are engineered to consume carbon dioxide but then mutate to consumer oxygen and then consume ALL the oxygen in the ENTIRE WORLD?!! 

One commenter brought up the Will Smith movie, I am Legend, in which Smith is the only survivor of a disease which has transformed the population of New York into mindless, light-fearing zombies.  The commenter, in all seriousness, uses this as an example of science gone horribly wrong.  Whoa.  And what is worse – there are more people that agree with this commenter than point out that you can’t compare Hollywood to reality.  I fear Hollywood’s special effects are getting a little too realistic these days.

Another thing that just killed me (not the zombies this time) was that many people tried to inject rational science into the argument, but GOT IT WRONG!  We need to teach people better science in school, because sometimes they try to use it, but they just don’t know the facts!  In this case, people were saying (and I’m paraphrasing), no way these bacteria could mate with other wild bacteria, they only reproduce asexually, commenter such and such, you’re so stupid suggesting they could mate (you know how much people like to take digs at other commenters since they’re anonymous and all).  Except, the fact is that bacteria CAN swap DNA, even with other bacterial species, even with non-bacterial species!  (Fascinating Scientific American article on this here.) They are quite promiscuous little bugs, going around slurping up bits of DNA other bacteria just drop all over the place.

I think that these conversations can provide scientists, and science educators with useful information.  We do still need to work on the quality of science education, but we need to also help change the public’s perception of science.  One way to help this is to get the public more involved in a conversation with scientists about science and perhaps even involved with decision making in science.  At the moment the funding for scientific studies is mostly ok’ed by peer scientists.  While yes, this very good, it’s really important to remember that the public’s perception of what these studies are doing, does not always (often?) match the reality.  Since it’s largely public money going to fund science, as we get into these stickier and trickier ethical issues, we the scientists need to take a step back and listen to what people are saying and start a dialogue.  Both to figure out where perception is grossly distorted but also to find how mature we are as a society and what we are ready for next.