I'm currently discussing the meaning of "function" with a small group of scientists and philosophers and it's not easy to come up with an acceptable definition. Imagine how much more difficult it is to identify research that results in a gain of function!
Gain-of-function research has been in the news recently because there are a group of conspiracy theorists who accuse the scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology of conducting gain-of-function research on bat caronaviruses leading to the creation of SARS-CoV-2 which then escaped from the lab to cause the pandemic. Some of these conspiracy theorists even accuse the American NIH of funding this gain-of-function research.
How do you define gain-of-function research in a meaningful manner? That's the question posed by Amber Dance in a recent Nature article. (Amber Dance is a freelance science journalist.) The first reference below is the title and subtitle of the article that was published in the magazine and the second reference is the online version.
Dance, A. (2021) The Truth About Gain-of-Function Research: Granting new abilities to pathogenic microbes sounds dangerous, but what has the research told us? Nature 598: 554-555. [doi: 10.1038/d41586-021-02903-x]
Dance, A. (2021) The shifting sands of ‘gain-of-function’ research: The mystery of COVID’s origins has reignited a contentious debate about potentially risky studies and the fuzzy terminology that describes them. Nature 598: 554-555. [Nature website]
The only relevant gain-of-function research is the type specified by NIH as "gain-of-function research of concern" (GOFROC). This is research that makes a potential pathogen more likely to cause disease in humans. This is the kind of research that would be carried out in a lab devoted to biological warfare but it could also apply to some research that was carried out in the past, as described in the article. There is no evidence to support the accusation that scientists in China, or anywhere else, were doing such research on coronaviruses.
There are other kinds of research that involve constructing chimeric viruses in order to test whether they have the potential to cause a pandemic. This is perfectly normal, even necessary, research but conspiracy theorists have claimed that this is forbidden gain-of-function research. The article does a good job of explaining this research and why it's not a problem.
Image Credits: The coronavirus figure is from Alexy Solodovnikov and Wikmedia Commons.