By Samuel W. Anderson



Shortly after I started as editor of GeneWatch, I promised myself that we would staunchly avoid printing images of double helixes floating in space. It's not as silly as it sounds, actually. Here's a fun activity for the folks at home: Try a Google image search for "DNA" or "genetics." Now try a Google news search for those terms. Now click on a few of those articles and see how many use some version of that same DNA-in-space motif.

I wouldn't presume to chalk it up to laziness-partly because all of the biggest news outlets are perpetrators, but mainly because it didn't take me long to discover why everyone else so often reverted to the double helix illustration. For many articles, you can just print a photograph of your subject, be it a person, place, or thing. An isolated DNA molecule is a tad less photogenic. For some thematic articles, there may be a whole array of imagery that agrees with the topic. For education you have buses, chalkboards, and kids with backpacks; for global warming you have melting glaciers, swimming polar bears, and all manner of natural disasters; for genetics, you have ... a double helix. If you think that sounds engaging, check out the stock alternatives! You can zoom out and show the whole chromosome; you can zoom in and show the DNA's base pairs; or, for the human touch, why not try a photo of a scientist looking into a microscope?

Perhaps I exaggerate, but the fact remains: some topics are just more difficult than others to capture in a visually interesting way. "Biobanks" qualifies. For starters, pictures of shelves in a freezer or a rack of blood samples may not exactly arrest the imagination. More importantly, though: what is a biobank, anyway? Let's go to that most trusted of sources, Wikipedia (which in turn gets its definition from a 2010 article in Wired by Steve Silberman): "A biobank is a cryogenic storage facility used to archive biological samples for use in research and experiments." This definition also corroborates what Robert Green, Susan Wolf, George Annas and Patricia Roche all pointed out to me during interviews for this issue: the scale of biobanks ranges "from individual refrigerators to warehouses." The biological samples could be blood, spinal fluid, tissue from tumors, you name it. Researchers have access to the genetic information of whoever submitted their sample, although unlike a DNA databank, that information may not yet have been gleaned from the sample.

This issue of GeneWatch includes discussion of the practical and ethical concerns, research and logistical challenges, and the utility of different types of biobanks. It also features an interview with Christy White, one of the people behind a study finding that even after the passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, Americans are more concerned than ever about their genetic privacy; an article by Steven May, Executive Director of the Forum on Genetic Equity, on the proposed Massachusetts Genetic Bill of Rights; and an interview with James Evans, a recent GeneWatch fixture and co-author of a Science article urging a more realistic view of the practical returns of genetic research. That article ("Deflating the Genomic Bubble," appearing in Vol. 331 of Science in February) draws attention to the problems that arise from inflated expectations of genomics.

In other words, what this issue lacks in eye-catching imagery it makes up for in smart commentary. Besides, you don't read GeneWatch for the pictures, right?

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