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.