Tuesday, June 25, 2013

All the Science News That's Hard to Talk About (I)

As I think I've mentioned before, I have a job being a science writer for UNC Charlotte. What is a science writer? Most people I know describe it as being a science journalist -- a journalist who covers science. This is basically what I am, though I wouldn't really claim to be journalist, since I work for an institution, not a newspaper or a news outlet, and I don't cover all science news, just the science news that happens at UNC Charlotte. Some people would say that I am a science PR person, but that really isn't right either, since my job doesn't involve "shamelessly promoting" (as journalists, perhaps unfairly, sometimes describe PR) science and technology here -- there are professional ethics involved in this job that supersede any interest in simply promoting the research work going on at the university. Most of my colleagues at other universities, medical centers and labs call themselves Public Information Officers -- PIO's for short.

After that lengthy preamble, I'd like to get down to what I'm really writing about today, which is related to all of this.  In the past couple of weeks, I've been working on covering a couple of research projects that are both important  (ok, I think ALL research is important) and are about topics that I know people are already quite concerned about. This last point is important, because it is what makes a story "news" and makes people pay attention. Stories that no one is going to pay attention to are... well, not worth writing about. This is the way journalists think.

Jorge Cham's excellent description of how research information gets distributed to the public, from PhD Comics, 2009. (c) Jorge Cham

And yet, other than here, I really doubt that you'll hear about either of these projects. Why? Well, there are barriers between the stories I will write about them and you. But these aren't unique barriers -- they are barriers that come up all the time in contemporary science and science communication. It doesn't matter -- I'm going to write about them anyway because they are important pieces of science and the public deserves to hear about them anyway. This is the way PIOs think.

Life is complicated. So is science.

Here's story #1: Dr. Shan Yan in our department of biology -- and several of his students -- has found a way (a completely unexpected way) that dangerous, highly reactive forms of oxygen trigger one of two complex DNA repair mechanisms in our cells.

Whoa, wait a minute! "DNA repair mechanisms"? Did you know that our cells repair their own damaged DNA? I didn't, and I've been writing about science (a lot of it biology) and reading about science for more than 20 years. (Ok, my knowledge is a mile wide and a millimeter deep, but still...). It turns out that the DNA in each of our cells is damaged maybe a million times a day, and a ten thousand times a day the molecular biology in our cells go to work repairing it so the cells can go on doing what they are supposed to do, including multiplying when they need to. The processes that are constantly remaking, reshaping our constantly degrading DNA are not simple, but involve complicated biochemical "pathways" -- chain reactions of a lot of complex molecules, with switches that make the process go one way or the other, with feedback loops that slow down or speed up or turn off or turn on various other processes -- kind of a molecular Rube Goldberg machine. A lot of the parts of these very important, very complicated processes are already known to contemporary biologists (but not to me, obviously) -- Dr. Yan and his research team "simply" found a new piece of the puzzle.

As you can see, it is an important finding -- if the process Dr. Yan has brought to our attention did not happen, all of our DNA would quickly stop working and we would die (along with most other creatures on the planet). But I promised you that this is something that many people "are already quite concerned about" -- how can that be true, if most people have never heard of DNA repair pathways? Well, it turns out that most DNA damage (though not all) is caused by dangerous forms of oxygen (what scientists call "radical oxygen species) that our cells constantly produce when they turn sugar into biological energy compounds. Radical oxygen species react chemically with DNA ("oxidation") and break down part of the molecule. Have you ever heard of this before? Have you ever read any food advertising that claims something is loaded with "antioxidants"? Those are chemical that people think might cancel out our cells' dangerous radical oxygen species, though, of course, most people pretty fuzzy on why that matters. But you know it is  important! It's why you buy that fruit juice, or that anti-aging cream -- they have the magical "antioxidants" in them! Aren't you interested to learn that these may not be as important as we thought because cells are already designed to repair themselves? In fact, Dr. Yan found that hydrogen peroxide (one of those radical oxygen species) is part of what actually makes one of the repair pathways start.

So why won't this make the news? If I were a reporter at a paper, I might be personally interested in this story, but I would never agree to write it because I know it would be very hard to get my audience interested in reading even the most simplified, most clearly written version of it. Simply put, the details of the finding are just too complicated for the public to understand or for them to be willing to struggle with. The science is really cool and important, but the devil is in the details. Let's see -- how did the Yankees do last night? Lost by three runs -- now, that's a story I can get my head around while I drink my morning coffee! (Loaded with antioxidants!)

So that is why neither of us has heard of DNA repair pathways before, though all this research in puzzling out cell self-repair has been going on for years. All sorts of profound things are being discovered all the time in contemporary science, but you will never hear about it because the research context has simply become too complex to talk to ordinary people about. (If you want to read my own, somewhat simplified version of this story, the link is here.) It's a problem in getting information that people should care about to... the people. But it's not the only one -- see my next post.

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