Making “creatures that work for us” – Animal Farm (3)

June 20, 2007

The final episode of the Channel 4 documentary series Animal Farm (originally broadcast on 2nd April 2007; TRILT identifier 0062CC6E) continues many of the themes explored in both Episode 1 and Episode 2. Despite being entitled Arrival of the Clones, this episode again deals predominantly with transgenic animals; Olivia Judson and Giles Coren meet “a spider-goat” (00:05:25), fluorescent pigs and fish, and an “Enviropig” (00:20:47) – as well as a cloned horse, a ‘resurrected’ Banteng, and a room full of “mutant mice” (00:48:00).

In the first section of the show we meet Prof. Randy Lewis who has taken the gene for spider silk from a spider and incorporated it into the genes of a goat, to create a transgenic organism that is “part mammal, part arachnid” (00:03:30). This gene is expressed in the mammary glands of the goat such that it is able to produce the proteins that are the building blocks of spider silk in its milk. Though there is a lot of additional work involved in ‘spinning’ these proteins into fibres, these goats represent the first step in the potential mass production of synthetic spider silk fibres, which are both strong and light, and also biodegradable. These fibres have numerous medical applications including artificial joints, ligaments and limbs, though also military uses, for example in the next generation of body armour (read more in the Daily Telegraph).

Following on from the previous programme’s glow-in-the-dark rabbits, this episode features two more fluorescent transgenic animals: a GFP pig, seemingly created for very similar purposes to the rabbits created by Louis-Marie Houdebine; and fish with a transgene from sea choral, which, at present serves a very different purpose. Originally developed as an “early warning system for toxins in water” (00:15:47), and intended to have the transgene “switch on and off in response to the animal’s environment” (00:15:00; further details are given in the New Scientist). However, since “scientists are still working on the switch” (00:15:57), these fish have instead become the first GMOs to go on sale as pets (available in the US under the trademark GloFish).

Two other transgenic animals discussed here share particular similarities. These are the Enviropig and the ‘resurrected’ Banteng, both created in response to the environmental effects of human activity. The Enviropig’s creators claim that this organism solves “an impossible problem of biology” (00:20:23). It contains a “man made gene” (00:21:17), constructed in the laboratory from sections of bacterial and mouse genome, which was inserted into a fertilised pig egg. Unlike normal pigs, this animal produces an enzyme in its saliva which allows it to digest organic phosphorus, thereby reducing the phosphorus content of pig manure, which has otherwise become a pollutant by-product of intensive farming.

The ‘resurrected’ Banteng, however, ‘solves’ what might be seen as a more serious side-effect of human activity: the possible extinction of “50% of all lifeforms…within the next 100 years” (00:36:38).

The ethical question underlying all these creations is: is it morally right, or justifiable, for us to be modify animals for our own medical benefit, personal pleasure, or to correct environmental problems caused by human activity? While these issues are not explicitly addressed in the programme, the techniques and organisms featured in this episode of Animal Farm, would make it an excellent resource for group discussion of this question. Examples and possible answers are discussed in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that accompanies this post (pdf).

Overall, episodes 1, 2 and 3 of this series have covered a wide range of technologies and associated ethical issues, at a level of detail that makes them ideal reusable learning objects. If I have one criticism, it is of the closing statement of the series: “one thing is certain: the genie has been let out of the bottle, and genetic science is here to stay” (00:59:10). It seems a shame that, having opened up and, given the two-presenter format, literally discussed such a wide range of contentious ethical issues, the series ends with a banal cliche. In terms of the selective breeding of both plants and animals – including those depicted in Animal Farm, ‘genetic science’ has been around for a long time, indeed, since before the gene came to be recognised as “the fundamental unit of heredity” (Ricard, 2005). What the biotechnologies shown in Animal Farm seem to offer is an unprecedented level of precision (as suggested in episode 1) and, hence, the ability to make very specific and targeted genetic alterations.

They do, however, seem to raise new ethical questions, ones which – as the unresolved argument between Olivia Judson and Giles Coren suggests – may have no fixed answer. In this sense, a genetic science informed by debates in bioethics (as I believe ours is) seems to have an uncertain future, though only because our answers to the ethical questions posed by the series will, inevitably, shape where transgenics, for example, goes next.

All timings given here are approximate, and correspond to quote timings on the ERA recording of Animal Farm – Part 3 of 3, CH4 2100-2200pm, 02 April 2007.

The “Pharmaceutical Farm” – Animal Farm (2)

June 20, 2007

In this second of three programmes, Imperial College Research Fellow Olivia Judson and food critic Giles Coren investigate several more biotechnological creations on Channel 4’s virtual Animal Farm (originally broadcast on 26th March 2007; TRILT identifier 0062CC6E). Development discussed in this episode include tissue engineering – used here to make a replica of Giles Coren’s nose – and footage on transgenic cows, sheep and tobacco plants. As the programme’s guides meet these animals and their creators, they not only elborate some of the themes from Episode 1, but also draw out some additional ethical issues surrounding the latest uses of techniques of genetic modification on the “pharmaceutical farm” (00:47:08).

In particular they meet a herd of cloned, transgenic cows “built…from the ground up, to help cure some of the most dangerous diseases on the planet” (00:03:29), including anthrax and the currently incurable Ebola. These cows have a series of gene-knockouts (that is, genes of their own which have been engineered to stop normal expression) but also, more significantly in this context, carry a human ‘microchromosome’ (HAC), which “has the human antibody gene in it” (00:03:48). The purpose of this modification is to mass-produce human antibodies, which thanks to the HAC, can be harvested in large quanities by filtering the cows’ blood. According to the programme this is the only way to achieve this short of repeately innoculating humans, but, as Olivia says, “we can’t go round infecting people with antrax” (00:05:12).

In the course of the programme Olivia also encounters, what are described as, ” the sheep that is just a little bit human” (00:25:27). In what is a very technical, though understandable, section of the programme, Prof. Esmail Zanjani describes how human adult stem cells can be injected into the embryo of a sheep while in the womb, such that “the lamb, when born, will contain sheep and human cells” (00:28:04). This is termed a process of ‘humanisation’. Prof. Zanjani is, however, only really interested in the sheep’s organs, as opposed to creating “a strange new hybrid” (00:29:52), as a result of cell fusion – something that the programme identifies as one of the risks of this technique. He is interested in growing “human parts inside animals” (00:25:01), for the purposes of patient specific organ transplantation. As he says, these sheep contain, for example, livers which are “at least 10 to 15 percent made up of the liver cells derived from that patient” (00:29:04).

A third transgenic organism featured in the show is a variety of 10ft, transgenic tobacco, engineered to ‘manufacture’ cyanovirin. This chemical, produced by a gene found only in a specific type of blue-green alge, is vital in the global battle against HIV-AIDS. This tobbaco plant’s creators intend the cyanovirin to be used for an HIV barrier cream, which, since they are harvesting the seeds as well as the leaves for global supply, could – in theory – be made in, and by, any country in the world.

Aside from further discussion of the ethical issues identified in episode 1 (for example, the differential treatment – and assesment – of plant and animal transgenesis), episode 2 is an excellent resource for addressing questions of whether transgenics blurs, or even, breaks down species barriers in a morally significant way. This can be broken down into questions around:

  • Speciesism
  • Identity
  • The ethical treatment of experimental animals

Each of these issues is explored in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that accompanies this post (pdf).

All timings given here are approximate, and correspond to quote timings on the ERA recording of Animal Farm – Part 2 of 3, CH4 2100-2200pm, 26 March 2007.

Tissue Engineering – The Farm Revealed (3)

June 13, 2007

The third episode in The Farm Revealed series (Channel 4, 13th June 2007) a spin-off from the Animal Farm documentaries, draws on footage concerning tissue engineering. In line with its more “entertainment oriented” approach to this material, it largely focuses on attempts by Dr Chris Smith and presenter Rufus Hound to grow a burger in the studio from a joint of meat.

On the serious side, this programme explores the techniques of cell culture and tissue engineering required to grow organs – for example the nose of Giles Coren, presenter of Animal Farm. Documentary footage shows the process of scaffolding cells, growing cartilage, and finally attaching skin. The purpose of this is to help heal burns, repair bones, etc. This leads on to a discussion of stem cells – the cells used growing these organs.

Initially we are introduced to the use of stem cells in the context of therapy: here in the treatment of severe combined immune deficiency (SCID), where haematopoietic stem cell transplants are used to populate bone marrow with T-cell producing cells. However, in a clip from Animal Farm, their use in growing organs is revealed.

Olivia Judson investigates how stem cells taken from human patients and injected into the live foetuses of sheep, have the effect of “humanising” their organs. The sheep are referred to as “up to 15% human” (00:13:58), and contain, both human, and sheep, cells. In scientific terms these are chimeric animals. Their creator, Prof. Esmail Zanjani, intends these sheep to become a source of patient-specific organs for transplant. The obvious endpoint of this is summed up in the quote “one day we might all have a personalised flock of sheep on standby to provide us with new organs if any of ours fail” (00:18:05), the ethics of which is explored briefly in the studio.

Perhaps the only thing of real value that this programme adds to the presentation of the same material in Animal Farm is the brief interview with artist Oron Catts, who uses tissue engineering techniques to create works of art.

Though this programme does acknowledge that tissues, like burgers, cannot be grown and engineered overnight – let alone in the course of a half hour TV show, and the explanation of the potential of stem cell is concise and accurate, it continues to suffer from the deficiencies noted in previous posts concerning episode 1 and episode 2. In this respect, for the purposes of teaching, the original series Animal Farm remains, both scientifically and bioethically, a much more appropriate resource.

Transgenics and a world of “limitless possibilities” – Animal Farm (1)

June 13, 2007

In this, the first of three episodes, the documentary series Animal Farm (originally broadcast on Channel 4 on 19th March 2007; TRILT identifier 0062CC6E) begins to explore the world of selective breeding, transgenics and cloning – a world that is described as having “limitless possibilities” (00:20:31). The series places the scientist Olivia Judson and the food critic Giles Coren on a virtual farm, populated solely by plants and animals that have been subject to some form of genetic manipulation. The farm’s inhabitants range from selectively bred Belgian Blues and a hairless cat, to ‘super salmon’, featherless chickens, ‘humanised’ sheep and Golden Rice.

The Belgian Blue (Animal Farm. Channel 4, episode 1, 2007)

While the series itself offers an excellent source of concise and understandable scientific background to some of the most groundbreaking, contemporary biotechnological developments (the short animated sections are an excellent resource in this respect: see for example the explanation of how and why transgenic salmon were created – 00:27:13 “Traditionally a salmon only grows in warm water” to 00:27:47 “…all year round whatever the water temperature”), the programme is explicit in its attempt to examine the ethics of these developments and, further, public responses to them.

The “Super Salmon” v. the normal salmon (Animal Farm. Channel 4, episode 1, 2007)

This first episode, for example, begins with a number of questions: “If they can create a rabbit that glows in the dark, should we fear it?”, and “If they can make a goat that produces spider’s silk in its milk, is this going too far?” (00:00:09), followed by statements relating to two positions one might take on such organisms: “…evolution has produced weird and wonderful creatures, now man can do the same” (00:00:27); and, that they have “…been designed by men to exploit animals for their own ends” (00:09:03). Each position is represented by one of the presenters, and as the programme proceeds we learn how and why one believes that the techniques explored in Animal Farm offer “limitless possibilities” (00:20:32), and the other the “possibility for getting it all horribly wrong” (00:31:52).

The potential of transgenics is one of the major issues addressed in this episode. Indeed, it is described as “one of the great discoveries of the last 20 years” (00:20:31). The ability to isolate a gene form one species, transfer it into another species, and have it expressed in that organism, is the basis for almost all recombinant DNA technologies. While such techniques have been in routine use for at least 20 years, it is in their application to higher, and more proximate, animals that is the principal focus of Animal Farm.

The Scaleless Chicken (Animal Farm. Channel 4, episode 1, 2007)

During their time on the ‘farm’, Judson and Coren meet: rabbits that glow in the dark ; salmon that grow to four times normal size in their first year; and rice that, thanks to bacteria and daffodil genes, is able to produce beta carotene – one of the “building blocks” of vitamin A. Each of these transgenic organisms is introduced and explored in turn, particularly through interviews with their ‘creators’. They are asked to explain the rationale behind the use of transgenics in each case, and also to address the ethical issues and public concerns that go alongside each development. While the series itself appears implicitly supportive of this technology, these interviews do attempt to address the perception that “swapping genes from one species to another [is] inherently disturbing” (00:40:50). Some of the main issues affecting the ethical assessments contained in the programme are:

  • Medical v. non-medical uses of transgenics
  • Connections with the GM debate
  • Debate about “What’s natural” (00:09:33)

An exploration of each of these topics, as presented in this episode of Animal Farm, is given in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that accompanies this post (pdf).

However, whatever one’s view on whether and how each of these issues could or should affect our ethical decision-making regarding transgenics, what this programme clearly highlights is the truly revolutionary feature of transgenic technology: precision. Where selective breeding and the crossing of plant species have allowed us to manipulate the genetics of animals and create new hybrid plant species, genetic technologies of the type explored in Animal Farm offer us a precision we have never had before.

Reflections on Episode 2 and Episode 3 of Animal Farm can also be found on this site.

All timings given here are approximate, and correspond to quote timings on the ERA recording of Animal Farm – Part 1 of 3, CH4 2100-2200pm, 19 March 2007.

Performance-enhancing drugs – Sport’s Dirty Secrets

June 12, 2007

Far more frequently than most of us would like, the sports news features fresh allegations of foul play and cheating.  A two-part documentary Sport’s Dirty Secrets looked to bring together some of the most notorious cases in one timeline of shame.  As far as bioethics is concerned, interest focusses on the second episode (TRILT identifier: 006B9F19, first transmitted on Channel 4 at 23:05 on 29th May 2007).  In particular, there is helpful archive footage of both the BALCO scandal in athletics, and of the misuse of blood products in cycling, with a focus around the Festina team.

BALCO (or Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative) was the company run by Victor Conte that developed and supplied tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) an artificial steroid.  THG became popular with certain sprinters as it was synthetic and initially undetectable since, without a reference specimen to compare, the authorities had no way of showing it was there.  All of this changed in 2003 when an informant provided a syringe containing traces of THG.  As a result various athletes, including American sprinter Kelli White and Britain’s Dwain Chambers, were found guilty of taking the drug and banned from competition.

As participants in an endurance event, cyclist have tended to favour an alternative compound, erythropoietin (EPO).  EPO is a natural hormone involved in the regulation of red blood cells.  As the theory goes, the more red blood cells you’ve got, the more oxygen you can carry around the body and the more efficiently your muscles can work.  Traditionally, it has been hard to prove illegal use of EPO supplement since it is naturally found in the body.  Successful discovery of misuse has more normally involved catching athletes or their associates red-handed with paraphenalia used for doping.  Such was the case in 1998, when Willy Voet, the coach of the Festina cycling team, was found with substantial quantities of EPO during a routine customs search.

Either of these clips could be used to introduce discussion of the underlying science and/or ethics of using artificial enhancements in competitive sports [it is hoped that more background on this topic will shortly be the subject of one of our Bioethics Briefings].

Please note: as might be anticipated, given the original late night transmission, the documentary includes explicit detail of some of the other ways in which sportsmen have fallen from grace, and it is therefore not recommended to watch the whole programme with students, particularly a school-age group. 

Selective breeding, transgenics – The Farm Revealed (2)

June 12, 2007

In this second episode of The Farm Revealed (originally scheduled for 11th June 2007, but actually transmitted the following day), the connections to the previous documentary series Animal Farm are overt.  Although the programme starts in the studio with the selective breeding of hairless cats, it then moves to a well-known farming example of selective breeding – Belgian Blue cattle. No modern genetics is used in the production of these cows, they have been developed over the years entirely by choosing which animals are allowed to breed together.

Back in the studio, this raises the interesting question of eugenic (although the word is not used).  Could the same extreme development of specific characteristics be achieved by selective breeding of humans? The answer given by geneticist Chris Smith is ‘yes’, and a demonstration based on ‘morphing’ the facial appearance of two audience members is given.  There is some mileage in discussing the ethics of directed breeding of humans or, as it has been more frequently manifest in our history, by the removal from some individuals of the capacity to have children, via forced sterilisation.

In the programme, the discussion moves onto transgenics, that is the potential to move genes between species. Another clip from Animal Farm is shown, where Olivia Judson visits Prof Houdebine, an expert in transgenic rabbits.  The rabbits have been given a gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP) taken from a jelly-fish.  As a result, the rabbits glow under ultraviolet light. 

Back in the studio once more, Dr Smith demonstrated the principles of transgenics by transfering the GFP into Escherichia coli bacteria.  In an outrageous misrepresentation, he spreads some E. coli onto an agar plate and puts it into the 37 C incubator.  Less than 5 minutes later, the plates are removed from the oven to reveal several large colonies!  Later on, these cells are exposed to the GFP gene in culture, heat shocked and, after another short interval, two plates of bacteria are presented.  One is expressing the GFP gene and glows under UV light, the other does not. 

This is a classic Blue Peter “Here’s one I prepared earlier” moment, except unlike the flagship children’s programme, the presenters here do not have the integrity to point out that this is the case, and give the impression that this is the same agar plate that was put into the oven shortly before.  The fact bacterial colonies take several hours to grow may not be convenient in the production of a 25 minute programme but if we are going to accurately portray scientific developments to the public then these details are important.  The misinformation is compounded at the end when Dr Smith states that “In the programme here today we’ve genetically modified E.coli“. Technically this may be true – some bacteria were heat-shocked for a minute in the middle of the demonstration – but this is clearly not the message than a non-expert would take home.

So, is this episode worth considering for teaching purposes?  Discussions about the ethics of selective breeding and/or transgenic modification of humans could follow showing of this show, but the scientific errors are such that I’d approach it with extreme caution.  The most useful bits are undoubtedly the clips taken from the Animal Farm programmes.  So, if those are available to you directly, then I’d use them in that context.  

Cybernetics – The Farm Revealed (1)

June 12, 2007

There are a number of things about this programme that irritate me (but also some features that are worthy of note!)  Firstly, the title of the series is more than a little misleading, and the confusion is compounded by the fact that Channel 4 transmitted the episodes in a different order relative to the pre-publicity (and thus the presenter Rufus Hound started this ‘first’ episode by referring back to the previous episodes on genetic modification and manipulation!)  Added to this, the presentation style seemed terribly like ‘yoof TV’ of a bygone age. 

The title The Farm Revealed has been chosen to tie-in with another recent Channel 4 series Animal Farm; some of the footage (and incidental music) is common to both programmes .  This episode (originally scheduled for 15th June 2007, but actually transmitted on 11th June) doesn’t really have any connection to farming, ancient or modern.  The focus instead is on the current and future use of cybernetics and prosthetics. 

We are introduced initially to Richard Whitehead and Richard Hirons; the former is a marathon runner who has no legs and therefore uses sophisticated carbon-fibre replacements, the latter an engineer who develops these kinds of aids.  They were then joined by Marc Woods, another client of Dr Hirons, who demonstrated a complex artificial leg which respond to changes in gradient and allows him to participate in mountain climbing.

Moving on from artificial limbs, the programme then started to consider ways in which brain activity alone can be used to control a remote robot. The demonstration did not go entirely as planned, but was sufficiently impressive to show that there are very real developments going on in this area.

Possibly the most interesting section, from a bioethical point of view, starts 11 minutes into the programme and features Prof Kevin Warwick from the University of Reading. He stands in a long tradition of medical researchers who use themselves as their own guinea pig. At different stages of his research, Kevin has had a Radio Frequency Identification Device inserted into his arm (to investigate the security possibilities of such technology) and also ‘mainframed’ his nervous system, connecting a two-way electronic signalling system from his brain to the internet via electrodes in his arm.  There is some impressive footage of the experiments (starting 17 minutes into the programme). We see Prof Warwick control a series of household tasks chosen from an onscreen menu simply by closing and opening his left hand.  He is also able to control a wheelchair and,  most sensationally, used thought alone to guide the movements of a robotic hand back in his home lab at Reading whilst he himself was in New York.  Sensors in the fingers of the disembodied hand fed back information to him about how tight his grip was. 

I have heard Prof Warwick speaking about this type of cybernetics on a previous occasion, and am pleased therefore that this programme offers the opportunity to obtain and use the same footage of experiments that he had referred to in his lecture.  From an ethical standpoint, it raises interesting questions about the application of developments of this kind.  Therapeutic uses, such as providing sonar abilities to aid blind people avoid obstacles, or ways to control artificial limbs for amputees, are clear medical applications which, on the face of it, would not seems unreasonable.  Yet there are potentially more sinister ways to employ the same technology, such as pilotless warplanes and other military uses.  Indeed, Prof Warwick himself is the first to acknowledge that it is very difficult to draw a boundary between a therapeutic use for one person and an enhancement for somebody else. 

How the outworkings of new technologies are regulated is an old, but crucial, question.  Do you ban ‘good’ uses for fear about the misuse of the same procedures by somebody else?  Do you take an ‘anything goes’ approach because you cannot arbitrate between uses?  Or do you try and find some way to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable applications?  No easy answers, of course, but I think that some measure of regulation is always going to be necessary.  The possibility that some maverick somewhere else may misuse innovations made initially for good reasons, cannot be used to fuel an abdication  of responsibility.

“The Meaning of Humanity” – Doctor Who

June 6, 2007

The recent season of Doctor Who, the third since the relaunch of the the iconic series after a long absence, has included several episodes dealing with one of the most fundamental questions of all time: what it means to be human.

The human/Dalek hybrid
(Evolution of the Daleks. BBC, 2006)

One particular episode, The Evolution of the Daleks (first broadcast on BBC1, 28th April 2007), explores this theme through the creation of a hybrid Human/Dalek, in what the Daleks refer to as “the final experiment”. This transgenic organism, formed by the “splicing of human and Dalek genetic codes”, appears as the pinnacle of Dalek evolution, harnessing all the qualities of humanity that has made it undefeatable in the past…well, since the 1960s at least.

The classic episode The Evil of the Daleks (1967), was the first time the series attempted to describe something called the “Human Factor”. For years the Daleks had recognised this as some immaterial quality that humans possessed and they lacked; one that made the human race stronger, smarter and able to survive countless Dalek attacks. In 1967 the Daleks tried only to identify this mysterious quality, however in 2007 – with the benefit of a state of the art genetics laboratory – they finally incorporate the human factor into their own genetic makeup. It is through the interaction and comparison between the hybrid Dalek Sek and the Doctor, and Sek’s responses to subsequent events in the show, that the boundary between Dalek and Human, and the characteristics that make up the Human Factor are identified and explored.

The pig/human hybrids
(Evolution of the Daleks. BBC, 2006)

Essentially, The Evolution of the Daleks attempts to establish relations of similarity and difference between humans and Daleks, though also between humans, Daleks, and the pig/human hybrid army that had been created in the preceding show The Daleks in Manhattan. Humanity is depicted as thinking and feeling, where the Daleks are single-minded and emotionless. Humans have the ability to appreciate music and feel compassion for others; they possess courage, determination and ambition; though also experience pain and fear. It is the lack of these characteristics that makes the Daleks “less than their enemies”. The pig/human army, on the other hand are referred to as “simple beasts”.

The attached annotated Evolution of the Daleks Clip Guide provides relevant clips and quotes, and can be used in conjunction with copies of the episode obtained from the BUFVC (TRILT identifier: 006717D3).

If you like BioethicsBytes…

June 5, 2007

If you have been using the BioethicsBytes website to find out information about multimedia resources for teaching about bioethics, you may also like to take a look at the Literature, Film and Genetics site. Although their “about us” section is not currently very informative, it is fair to say that the site does exactly what it says on the tin. There are reviews and ratings of a variety of books and films where genetic themes are raised.  The material in their database can be browsed by Author/Director, Fiction (i.e. book), Film, Topic (Adaptation, Biological Determinism,… [through to]…, Vivisection and Young Adult).  There is also an interesting section on Criticisms, listing publications by their team.