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A Communicable Cure for YAGS

Addressing an audience composed primarily of scientists and bioinformaticists at the DOE Joint Genome Institute’s (JGI) 7th Genomics of Energy and Environment Meeting, New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer brought up a slide with the words “YAGS – Yet Another Genome Syndrome.”

Crediting biologist and open-access supporter Jonathan Eisen, a DOE JGI affiliate who was in the audience during that March 20, 2012 keynote address, with the term, he said YAGS is marked by the deluge of genome announcements in the news, with very little detail as to why these projects matter.

There’s an impression, he said, that “the sequence of a particular genome in addition to being a huge accomplishment, which it is, is also a game-changing, headline-making story.”

Unsurprisingly, there were questions afterward from the audience, and the first one came from DOE JGI Eukaryote Super Program head Dan Rokhsar, who asked if YAGS should be blamed on researchers like himself and others involved in genome sequencing, or on members of the media, public information officers included, who are not successful at communicating the importance of this work. (Spoiler alert: Jon Weiner wrote previously about the challenges of PIOs serving as translators between scientists and everyone else, so this piece focuses on how scientists communicate their own science.)

A bit of both, said Zimmer, a self-diagnosed YAGS sufferer since 2010. “My point is there are too many stories about the next genome. Science is that funny business where it’s hard to tell if maybe some genomes shouldn’t be written about.” He also talked about the importance of basic communication skills for scientists. “Scientists are not simply robots in a lab but part of a society and need to share insights,” he added.

Is that the sound of a gauntlet being cast onto the ground? All right, Mr. Zimmer, game on.

Zimmer’s talk set the tone for the next two days of this annual meeting and several speakers, both onstage and at the poster sessions, took up his challenge of effectively communicating their work. There were several impromptu elevator pitches as scientists worked their name, their job description, how their work matters to the general public, and a reference to Carl Zimmer into 15-second sound bites. There were anecdotes involving the relationship between dinosaurs and fungi, a seed development animation set to music, and even an analogy involving gold, Boeing 747s, and a weed killer.

One poster presenter at the meeting who arguably had less trouble with communicating his work was Craig Cary of New Zealand’s University of Waikato, who talked about using mummified seal carcasses to help researchers study climate change in Antarctica.

Craig Cary discusses his work involving mummified seal carcasses.

Craig Cary discusses his work involving mummified seal carcasses.

Anyone who starts his Methods and Materials section with, “We moved a 275-year old mummified seal carcass 50 meters east and then took soil samples under the carcass over the next five years…” should not be surprised to find an attentive audience whose imagination has been captured by that image. (His poster also included photos of his team moving the 200+ pound seal mummy; apparently a television crew was filming them.)

In this climate of striving toward effective science communication, a short video featuring DOE JGI Metagenome Program Lead Susannah Tringe debuted on the second day of the meeting. The video focuses on her DOE Early Career Research Award project to study the contributions of microbial communities in the restored wetlands of the San Joaquin Delta to the carbon cycle.

Remember that gauntlet Zimmer hurled during the first day of the meeting? Biochemist Steven Benner from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution picked it up and tossed it back during his closing keynote speech. He started to refute the “antigenome sentiment in biology” by explaining the difference between the scientist’s perspective and the public’s perspective.

Unlike Zimmer and his colleagues, he said, scientists aren’t trained to find that hook to get the public’s attention or to speculate on possible benefits. “Look at genome sequencing from the chemistry perspective,” he added. “German chemists of the 19th century did the chemistry of natural biostructures very well without knowing there would be a sequenced human genome.”

More importantly, Benner also argued that to understand the importance of the plethora of genome sequences, they should be considered from the perspective of planetary biology. Don’t look at how long it is taking for the human genome project to realize the promise of personalized medicine, he said. Rather, look at the bigger picture and consider that human and global histories can be read in the genomes of various species, from dating the first beer ever brewed to charting evidence of climate change. In succeeding slides he then tracked the emergence of genes involved in fermentation in the yeast genome, correlated the data to the genes involved in alcohol tolerance in humans, and so on.

“There are not that many sequences completed to planetary biology level yet,” Benner admitted in closing. “But planetary analysis will indeed revolutionize biology.”

Until that day comes, scientists and science communicators will have to work together to keep people reaching for the stars.

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Written By: Massie Ballon

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