The meaning of “genome”
By Daniel Zadik, University of Leicester
What does “DNA” mean to you? How about “genome”? Working in genetics, I use these terms every day and it’s easy to assume they’re understood. They’ve become common-place in the mainstream media, particularly since the high-profile publication of the Human Genome Project 11 years ago this week (this year also marks 10 years since the project was completed, with the “gold standard” human genome published). But do people really know what they mean?
Recently, the Wellcome Trust carried out its second “Monitor” of the public’s interest, attitudes and knowledge of science. Among other things, the survey asked members of the public how well they felt they understood the terms “DNA”, “genetically modified” and “human genome”, all commonly used by the mainstream media. The participants were also asked to define these same terms, providing some measure of the gap between how well people thought they understood and how well they actually did.
About half of subjects claimed a good understanding of “DNA”, fewer for “genetically modified”, and only about 10 per cent said they knew what a “human genome” was. The subjects’ own definitions of the terms, based on individual words and concepts, showed the same trend. Generally, younger people claimed a slightly better understanding than older people did, with men also claiming a better understanding than women do.
Of the three terms, “DNA” was the best known and participants tended to use a more technical vocabulary to define it. They generally showed some understanding, often using such concepts as “it’s what makes us” (by 24 per cent) and “it’s what provides an individual with a unique identity” (21 per cent). Understanding also differed more with age than it did for the other terms, possibly thanks to its inclusion in the GCSE syllabus in recent years.
Participants found it much more difficult to describe what exactly “genetic modification” involved. This is a relatively recent concept, and people’s understanding may reflect the fact that mainstream media coverage is dominated by perceived dangers, rather than a technical understanding. Yet, despite the controversy surrounding the subject, there was little emotive language or judgement in the participants’ descriptions. This may bode well for a future of sensible public discussion in a field where both commercial agendas and gut-reaction idealism may cloud the science.
The least well understood term was “human genome”. A decade after its high-profile publication, most participants had heard of it, and were broadly able to identify it as something to do with genes and genetics, but they often struggled to say much more. In fact, 21 per cent of adults and 30 per cent of young people who said they were familiar with the term could not define it at all.
One reason these results are important is that it reminds scientists and journalists that, when communicating with the public, they cannot assume a good understanding of such terms, and may need to explore ways to get ideas across.
As science progresses, the concepts used inevitably become more specialised. For the public to keep up, a good science education at school is a great start. But this will start to fall behind as soon as the individual leaves, unless they take a particular interest. Science coverage in the mainstream media has improved in recent years, but by its very nature, it’s more interested in the latest story than in providing the basic concepts. In this context, it seems likely that the gap between specialists and the public is very likely to grow.
Maybe this leaves a bigger responsibility for university scientists themselves to communicate with the public (the Wellcome Trust Monitor shows them to be amongst the most trusted sources, while journalists were amongst the least). Indeed, there has been an increase in science outreach by university departments, for example GENIE, here at the University of Leicester, use some very inventive methods to engage a very wide range of lay-people.
I have been involved in outreach myself, and have had to make decisions about whether or not to use, avoid or explain terms such as “genome”. With a readership of varying backgrounds and a word limit, some difficult choices must be made. One possible solution lies in another of the Wellcome Trust Monitor’s findings: that most people looked to the internet as their main source of scientific information. There, you can use a term and include a hyperlink to a further explanation, if needed by that individual at the time. Online, things become possible that are not so easy on paper.
Daniel Zadik is a Post-doctoral Scientist working in Genetics at the University of Leicester. He blogs at danielzadik.wordpress.com.