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Don't Exaggerate

UCLA researcher Christina Agapakis writes at The Crux blog that "exuberant over-optimism about the possibilities of genetics, both sequencing and now synthesizing genes, has created outsized expectations of what DNA can do, blurring the lines between science fiction and science fact." Scientific "hype," particularly the excitement currently surrounding synthetic biology and "biohacking," is exaggerating the possibilities and providing an unrealistic picture of research into DNA and genomics, Agapakis says. She adds that people want science to tell them who they are, where they came from, and what will become of them. "We want to synthesize genes and genomes to produce fuels and medicines, solve disease and save the environment," Agapakis says. "But the more we learn about how genes work inside the cell, the more the looked-for simplicity eludes us. Cells are simply too complicated for the 'gene for that' paradigm."

While the hype does color the understanding of non-scientists, it also seeps into grant applications, labs' goals, and discussions among scientists as well, she adds. All this threatens "the already shaky situation of funding and support for applied research," she says. "When we're telling the story of new research and new technologies, we're not only describing the recent past, we're contributing to the story of how the future is imagined and made."