Sensation and science
Views 20 | Time to read: 4 minutes | Uploaded: 2 - 14 - 2017 | By: Tyler Salinas
In last week’s edition of the Horizon, the news section ran a very catchy yet misleading article: “Successful Creation of First Human Animal Hybrid.” To start, the headline is completely false. No such hybrid has been made, and any claims to this end are a work of fiction.
While no hybrid was been made, a chimera was created at the Salk institute. Some may argue that I am just being picky about semantics, but in both science and news, correct terminology is crucial. Using the word “hybrid” is dangerous because it evokes a certain image in peoples’ minds. It creates an idea of a “monster,” as if the scientist created some kind of were-man-pig-orc creature.
Once that image is in a person’s mind, their perception of the work being done is completely skewed, and they begin to think of the scientist as defiers of nature or people who have crossed the line and are now trying to play God.
In genetics, a hybrid is an offspring of two different species that has the DNA of both species stuck together. This is not what was created in the lab. Instead, the scientist created a chimera, an organism that gets its cells from multiple species. This means that both the DNA and the cells of the various species do not combine.
The goal of this experiment wasn’t to create a monster, but to work towards “xenotransplantation.” Xenotransplantation means that organs from a different species would be transplanted into a human. This is very crucial work. Every ten minutes someone is added to the organ transplant waitlist, and everyday 22 people (on average) on that list die. It is incredibly hard to create an organ on a scaffold in a lab. If scientists can control the stem cells enough, they can potentially form a human organ in the pig that the pig won’t reject and that can be successfully transplanted into humans.
As for the ethical issues brought up in the news article, they were mostly unnecessary to talk about in relation to this subject. For one, the goal of the research isn’t to give a pig the qualities of a human. As previously stated, it is meant to see if human cells can survive in a host organism, and then begin working on a method to grow human organs to meet the ever growing demand for transplants.
Secondly, human brain cells have been put in animals before, but it was the support cells. This was done to see a human brain disease develop in a living organism since observation is much more helpful in nature, than it is on the petri dish. These ethical issues brought up, in combination with the word usage are worrisome because I fear it just further enhances the image of monster in the general public’s view.
Language is incredibly powerful in news because it shapes the perspective of the general public. In the case of news reporting on science, there comes the tricky balance of making it accessible to the general public, and staying true to the scientific definitions. One major factor in this problem is the potential lack of understanding on the part of the news staff. Without being able to fully understand the definitions and implications of the language, it is hard to truly present the research being done. It is comparable to a chemist and a political scientist writing about the other’s respective field. There may be several small errors in understanding that lead to huge misunderstandings on the reader’s part. Another factor is that sometimes the general public doesn’t want science, they just want small compressed summaries, which do huge injustices to the research. Overall, I don’t want to discourage reporting on scientific discoveries, but I do want to caution writers that more thorough research and explanations are required for complicated subjects, like stem cell research.