Cracking the code?

I was at a scientific conference last week, and am only now catching up on email, journal publications, and science news. In the case of the latter, I am noticing a striking resurgence (or maybe just persistence) of the description of genome sequencing and analysis as “cracking the genetic code”. Sigh.

I can understand the attraction to the analogy, in that a great deal remains to be done before we will have anything approaching a comprehensive understanding of how complex phenotypes are generated from the combined influence of genes, their regulation and interaction, and the environment. However, the “genetic code” has a specific meaning in science, and it was “cracked” in the 1960s.

[Based on an astute comment by RPM of Evolgen, it bears updating this post to include “mapping the genome” as an equally inappropriate description of modern comparative genomics. Genetic mapping, in proper terms, refers to identifying the relative proximities of genes on chromosomes as first accomplished in 1913 by Alfred Sturtevant, a student of Nobel Prize-winner Thomas Hunt Morgan in the famous Fly Room at Columbia University. Physical mapping, which is the identification of physical locations of genes on chromosomes, remains an important component in genomics, but this generally is not what journalists are referring to when they use the term; what they mean is sequencing.]

I think this is another symptom of too much journalism and not enough science in science journalism. Instead of resorting to the standard catchphrases and clich├ęs, why not introduce your readers to some accurate terms and concepts with which they may not be familiar? You can catch the interest of readers and educate them on the basics rather than appealing to their misconceptions or lack of prior knowledge.



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