By Rob DeSalle

from GeneWatch 26-5
Nov-Dec 2013

While doing a literature search for a manuscript recently, I came across an interesting web blog from Michael Eisen, a geneticist at UC Berkeley and a Howard Hughes Investigator. The article started with "I confess, I wrote the arsenic DNA paper." For those of you not familiar with this story, the paper was published in Science in 2011, describing the discovery of a bacterial species that used arsenic instead of phosphorus in its nucleic acids. This bizarre finding received tons of press, but alas was shown to be incorrect. Dr. Eisen, later in the web article, confesses that he didn't actually write the Science paper, but rather uses it as an example of a disturbing trend in scientific publication.

I confess that I have my own "I confess" story. I confess I wrote a paper in 1992 describing the sequencing of a tiny fragment of DNA from a termite entombed in thirty million year-old amber. The paper was published in Science and also gained a lot of public attention. While I still stand by this work, subsequent attempts to isolate DNA from amber preserved specimens have failed miserably. The ancient DNA community stepped back and started to demand higher standards for ancient DNA work, and now the oldest specimen that has yielded DNA that the research community accepts is only 700,000 years old. The reason I am dredging up the arsenic DNA and amber insect stories is that they demonstrate a curious aspect of publishing and of public perception. After publishing the original Science paper, several better controlled experiments were done on the amber insect specimen and these were published in lower visibility journals with no fanfare. I consider these subsequent papers orders of magnitude better than the original Science paper. Many scientists who have published in Nature or Science (the two preeminent science journals worldwide) will more than likely not point to their publications in those journals as their best science (but they will list them prominently on their CVs).

Most scientists would agree that getting the public to understand our work is very difficult and frustrating. But it is perhaps one of the most important things we can do as scientists. And given the current attitude many United States citizens have toward science, it has become essential that the public understand science better. Granting agencies like the National Science Foundation require that a proposal have what is called a "Broader Impacts" section. These broader impacts are ways that researchers propose to disseminate their research to the general public. Even when the research is conducted at a museum (as mine is), it is still very difficult to push scientific work out into the public. Unless it is incredibly "sexy," the news media usually ignores it. This means that many highly worthwhile scientific endeavors get overlooked or are invisible to the general public.

One example of "hidden" basic science is the hard basic work that virologists have done in trying to understand infectious entities like HIV and HPV. The public more than likely is not interested in how these viruses replicate or how their genes are expressed, yet these subjects comprise the scientific background for medical advances against the viruses. Another example is the basic science that grew up around research on cancer. The National Cancer Institute was founded in 1937, and over the past seventy-five years this institute has funded an enormous number of proposals, many of them peripheral to cancer, but all of them informative to basic science. Yet another example is the basic genetic work that conservation biologists have accomplished in the last two decades characterizing variability in endangered and threatened species. While this work has aided in conservation policy, much of it goes unnoticed by the public.

So, short of scientists hiring publicity agents (some do, while others have strong public information departments at their institutions), what is a scientist to do? One strategy is to keep chasing "sexy" stories. A sexy story will almost always make it into a high visibility journal. The problem is, what is considered sexy is up to the expertise of the editors at the high visibility journals, as Michael Eisen points out. A more sure way to accomplish this is to play the "broader impacts game" and put serious thought into how to disseminate information to the public.

A somewhat neglected scientific endeavor in the "hidden" category of organismal biology is DNA barcoding, the topic discussed in this issue of GeneWatch. It makes sound basic science sense to catalog organisms. Sir Robert May once said: "Without taxonomy to give shape to the bricks, and systematics to tell us how to put them together, the house of biological science is a meaningless jumble." This quote points to the essential importance of cataloguing biodiversity. The problem is, cataloguing organisms does not sound "sexy" to the public (unless of course the Loch Ness Monster is actually found, named, archived and catalogued). DNA barcoding wants to obtain a universal sequence from as many organisms as possible as a means to cataloguing biodiversity. In the process, specimens are collected, archived and catalogued, producing an invaluable resource in and of itself. The barcode sequence is "icing on the cake."

DNA barcoders, though, have discovered an excellent way to disseminate the information and idea behind the endeavor. They use the approach to teach kids about biodiversity, genetics and biology. Because of its inherent simplicity and low cost, the approach is amenable to dissemination in this way. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories and their DNA Learning Center have developed a program called the Urban Barcoding Project. The UBP, initially supported by the Sloan Foundation and currently supported by the Pinkerton Foundation, enlists high school students from the New York City area to characterize a group of organisms using barcoding. During the process, students learn a spectrum of basic biological principles and techniques. The high school kids take on projects covering everything from the basic biology of specimen identification to DNA sequencing and informatics. It is a wonderful example of citizen science. I attended the first annual student awards competition, and the number of lit lightbulbs above the kids' heads was stunning. To these kids, DNA barcoding and biodiversity was incredibly sexy.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: "No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful." And so goes science. Plain, basic, in-the-trenches science like DNA barcoding is important and beautiful, and it needs to be made more accessible to the general public.


Rob DeSalle, PhD, is a Curator and Professor at the American Museum of Natural History and The Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics.

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