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A Declaration of Principles

By Steven Burgess

Hello, my name is Steven. I am a postdoc in molecular plant biology based in Cambridge, UK. I am very grateful to the PLOS blogs to have entrusted me with the role of Community Editor; I want to give a big thanks to Aakriti and Victoria Costello from PLOS for easing me into the position, and my predecessor David, for an excellent job – I have a lot to live up to!


When PLOS blogs asked me to write a piece introducing myself, I was reminded of a scene for from Orson Welles classic film Citizen Kane, in which Charlie Kane as new editor of the Inquirer, makes a declaration of principles to his readership. Now, while that didn’t turn out well in the end, and I would probably reply in the same way to as his response to “Is that your idea how to run a newspaper?!” I like the Charlie Kane’s aspiration to report “quickly and simply and entertainingly”, so it is something I will try to follow.

There are many related communities that share an interest in synthetic biology, often operating in their own isolated spheres, ranging from academic science, to law, philosophy, history, art and design – not to forget members of the general public. As a scientist I have often been guilty of not stepping outside my own community, focusing on publications in the area of molecular biology. I rarely manage to find the time to read specialist publications from related disciplines, but on the odd occasions that I have, I have tended to find it very difficult! Specialist jargon can be a big problem; additionally one often has an incomplete understanding of the background issues that inform studies. Academics are experts for a reason, these issues are often complex and require careful study.

This lack of interaction is a real shame, and something I have berated myself for in the past. As scientists we should understand the legal issues surrounding the work we do, additionally buried in data, with eyes fixed at the level of As, Ts, Cs and Gs, we are sometimes guilty of not fully appreciating the ethical implications of our work, which is investigated in the social sciences, or even whether the general public actually wants, or accepts what we are doing (anyone interested in a micro pig?…well they are kinda cute). Now we are entering the age of unrestricted genome editing, these issues become ever more pressing, and when they are not sufficiently addressed it leads to problems. A good example of this would be the controversies surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops such as golden rice, in which grains have been engineered to produce beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A), and could potentially treat the problem of vitamin deficiency which effects millions of people in the developing world. Golden rice has run into numerous regulatory problems, and there were concerns about a lack of proper oversight when researchers tested its safety on Chinese children. I’m also not sure what the effect is on taste, or customer perception – the rice grains are yellow, which could cause problems for take up of a product where grains are normally bleached white to meet expectations.

From historians and economists we can start to understand the context of developments in synthetic biology (for an example check out the Engineering Life blog). I have frequently heard comparisons with growth of the software industry or the early industrial revolution. It is interesting to know how fair these comparisons are, and if anything can be learnt from the past to avoid making the same mistakes again. This has implications for how science is reported and funded. A good recent example would be the excitement about biofuels; there is a lot excellent research, and many technologies still hold great promise, but a rush to invest at an early stage caused inflated expectations. There were problems with scale-up from lab based experiments to industrial production, it was more costly than expected, companies went bust, interest waned and now governments are abandoning targets.

Artist, writers, designers and architects, unrestrained in their imagination, can help provide inspiration for research and raise ethical questions. This can range from integrating tissue engineering and textile design for use in the fashion industry, to performance art, such as work that involves turning oneself into the equivalent of a lab rabbit to produce anti-horse, polyclonal antibodies – it makes you stop and think… Artists are experts in identifying the key aspects of design that can be exploited and developed, and when collaborations between scientists and artists work well it can benefit both. In the immediate future one thing to watch out for is the upcoming Exo-evolution exhibition in Karlsrhule, which focuses on “the artistic use of new technologies and opens up views into the future”.

When talking to my colleagues at work and during tea breaks, I don’t think I’m alone in my ivory tower, so this is something I would really like to address during my time as editor. To help to do this:

I will emphasise the idea of community. I aim to foster links between isolated disciplines that share an interest in synthetic biology, to provide an articles in an intriguing, informed, but easily understandable manner. This is something I know my co-editor is very keen on, so is something I would like to help expand.

I will be critical and investigate the margins. The things that sometimes frustrate me when reading scientific journalism include slopping thinking, or articles that rehash the commonplace and widely reported. I am a big fan of contrarians, so if this is describes you, please get in touch!

I will keep you informed about developments within the scientific research field. I will be doing this by highlighting relevant articles published in the PloS journals, but I also plan to provide regular updates and interviews from Café Synthetique. This is a forum which meets once a month in Cambridge (UK), with guest speakers from different scientific disciplines within synthetic biology, and for which I would like to give a big thanks Dr. Jenny Molloy and Prof. Jim Haseloff for their support.

I will provide space for a wide range of voices. I want to point out my role is as an editor, so from high school kids to professors, scientists to artists – I would been keen to hear from you all, which I am sure will be far more interesting than rambling on myself. A great example of this was the work done recently done by Grant Vousden-Dishington, who filled the role as a guest editor to cover the 2015 iGEM jamboree and for which we are very grateful (if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend checking out his piece). There are only two of us as editors so we will not be able to cover all the relevant conferences, talks and events, so if you would like to report from any you are going to, please get in touch.

I’m excited to get going, and hopefully I will be able to keep my promises to you, the readers.

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