Synthetic biology: “Playing God”?

playing god

My notes on the episode, divided into principal sections

On reflection, I think 2012 was a good year for the BBC’s flagship science programme Horizon. One of my favourite episodes came way back in January, when Dr Adam Rutherford fronted the one hour documentary Playing God on the emerging discipline of synthetic biology. From a bioethical standpoint, this was a particularly strong episode with good coverage of the science, the potential advantages and the potential pitfalls of synthetic biology clearly demonstrated. My notes on the episode are available here.

The full episode is no longer on iPlayer, but a series of clips are still on the official Horizon website and are mirrored on the BBC’s official YouTube channel (in the list below the title link goes to the BBC Horizon site, the end link to YouTube). In terms of potential clips for teaching it therefore makes sense to start with these sections although, as we will note below, the best section on ethics is not included among the official clips.

    • Title sequence (duration 1:47) Content: The opening sequence sets out the key themes for the programme – the contrast of billions of years of evolution versus the emerging potential to predetermine the development of new species; life as a programmable biological machine. This power has great potential for good but might be abused. Comments: Of the five available clips, I don’t think this would be my first choice for introducing the issues as there isn’t quite enough detail without subsequently seeing those themes expanded in the rest of the programme. (YouTube).
    • An animal that shouldn’t really exist (duration 3:14) Content: Rutherford visits a farm in Logan County, a research facility belonging to Utah State University. Prof Randy Lewis explains the attractive properties of spiders’ silk to him, and the fact that the spiders’ cannibalistic tendencies make them impossible to farm directly in order to produce adequate quantities of the material. The solution? Transferring the gene for the silk protein into another animal to produce an organism “part spider, part something else”, with the next clip revealing that to be a goat.  Comments: This clip and the next are actually from the same section of the programme and could usefully be shown back to back (total = 6 mins). (YouTube).
    • The goats with spider genes and silk in their milk (duration 2:43) Content: Continuing their discussion at the research farm in Utah, Rutherford is introduced to the “spider goats” by researcher Randy Lewis. The goats have been engineered to produce the protein for spider silk and extrude it in their milk. When challenged that this is “bizarre”, Lewis counters that he considers the goats to be  “absolutely normal”. The clip goes on to show the goats being milked but does not include extraction of the silk, which was shown elsewhere in the programme Comments: I don’t like the use of the term “spider goat” as it implies something much more of a hybrid or a chimera than the reality – which is a goat with one gene added. We have discussed some of the issues surrounding such transgenic animals in other posts on BioethicsBytes, especially in regard to the Animal Farm documentary series and associated extended commentaries. Nevertheless, this section does usefully highlight some of the attractive features of this kind of bioengineering – the capacity to produce a valuable protein in an easily harvestable form (YouTube).
    • Playing God, by recreating life (duration 4:38) Content: This section discusses the 2010 announcement of the production of Synthia by Craig Venter and colleagues. Synthia, or Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 the more formal name for the organism, is “the only lifeform on earth whose parent is a computer”. (this is a reference to the fact that the sequence of DNA in Synthia was decided in advance using online genome databases and then the DNA molecules themselves were produced chemically as a series of shorter sections assembled together to make the complete genome for the cell). The clip includes a section where Rutherford uses white and red candle wax to draw out cells of two different species (more of that in a moment). As he points out Venter’s team can’t truly be said to have “created” life since – aside from addition of a few DNA ‘watermarks’ to identify the species – the DNA code had essentially been purloined from another related bacterium. “Recreated” or “rebooted” might be nearer the mark, Rutherford suggests. Even putting the hype to one side, he emphasises that this is an unprecedented degree of control over a living thing. Comments: Overall this is a nice section, summarising the achievements of making Synthia, without getting too sucked in to the hype. On the downside, the demonstrations are a little confusing – the drawing of cells using candle wax inadvertently implies that the cells have a nucleus which, as bacteria, they don’t (YouTube). 
    • Mind control (duration 2:22) Content: Rutherford visits Ed Boyden in his lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to discuss his pioneering work in synthetic neurobiology, a step from controlling microbes to controlling the brain, the  “most precious part of our anatomy”. Comments: A slightly frustrating clip, it ends just as it’s getting to the interesting bit! (YouTube). 

Frustratingly, the producers have not made available the clips with the most overt bioethical content. If you have access to the full programme (TRILT code: 0243AA4F; available as an off-air recording to BUFVC members) then I would favour the following sections:

  • 16:16 to 20:55 where the “biobricks” approach is raised
  • 25:56 to 33:11 manufacture of “biodiesel”
  • 41:21 to 45:33 introduction to garage or DIY biology, aka “biohacking”

Ethical concerns include:
– safety and the risk of modified organisms escaping (though this is partly countered by reference to the inclusion of inbuilt metabolic “kill switches”, see section 34:18 to 36:02). This is a consequentialist argument.
– exploitation of the poor, with necessary agricultural land being given over instead to growing plants as feedstuff for the bioplastics industry (section 36:03 to 38:02). Again a consequentialist argument.
– risks of bioterrorism, especially as the necessary molecular biology moves out from the lab and into suburban garages (section 38:03 to 41:20).
– playing god, a deontological argument, raised in the clip of the same name.

Rutherford’s closing statement nicely encapsulates the situation we are in at the moment “Whatever you think of the uneasy bargain that surrounds synthetic biology, one thing is absolutely clear. We have created for ourselves unprecedented power over life itself” (58:22).

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2 Responses to Synthetic biology: “Playing God”?

  1. […] For more on the topic, please see this Bioethicsbytes review of Horizon: Playing God. […]

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