Headline Bioethics: Enviropig – significant advance or environmental ‘band-aid’?

January 9, 2013

[A printable version of this Headline Bioethics Commentary is available via this link]

EnviropigMediumAuthor: Rebecca Hyde

Clip: ‘Enviropigs’: genetically modified for food consumption

Date of Story: 4 January 2011

Summary of story: For the past decade, researchers at the University of Guelph, Canada, has been developing a line of Yorkshire pigs now known as Enviropig. In January 2011, a BBC reporter had the opportunity to see the pigs in a research facility while applications to approve the Enviropig for human consumption were being deliberated by the US Food and Drug Administration. The Enviropig has been genetically modified to contain genes from Escherichia coli and mice and bred over several generations to become more environmentally friendly by reducing the toxicity of their waste.

Discussion of ethical issues: Development of the Enviropig raises a number of ethical questions. Some of these relate to issues of animal rights, some relate to genetic modification of organism in general and foods in particular. Given the reasons behind the investment in the Enviropig research, there are also specific issues relating to environmental ethics, and this represents a good place to begin evaluation.

Intensive pig farming produces large amounts of manure which contains high levels of phosphate. Whilst some phosphate is vital to life, and is necessary for good plant growth, high concentrations can lead to disruption and poisoning of ecosystems. Runoff from pig farms can lead to eutrophication of nearby water ecosystems, which can potentially lead to the water becoming anoxic and unable to support life (University of Guelph, 2011). Enviropig has been genetically modified to produce phytase in its saliva. This enzyme is important for the breakdown of phytic acid, an indigestible form of phosphorus commonly found in cereal-based foodstuffs. Bacteria in the guts of cattle and other ruminants, but not pigs, normally provide this enzyme allowing this dietary phosphate to be released and used by the mammal. Read the rest of this entry »

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Headline Bioethics: GM chickens offer solution to bird flu problem?

January 4, 2013

[A printable version of this Headline Bioethics Commentary is available via this link]GMchickenmedium

Author: Rachel Bell

BBC News Clip: Chickens that cannot spread bird flu developed

Date of story: 13th January 2011

Summary of story:   Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge have created genetically modified chickens that are unable to transmit the H5N1 “bird flu” virus between individuals. This effect was generated by inserting genetic information coding for a ‘decoy’ RNA hairpin molecule that acts as an inhibitor for the RNA polymerase enzyme required for replication of the flu virus (Lyall et al, 2011). It has been suggested that this approach may offer a means to reduce the extent to which bird populations act as a reservoir for flu and other diseases.

Discussion of ethical issues:  This story presents ethical tension on two levels; the possible benefits and complications for the chickens themselves, but also the implications for the human population. Laws relating to the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) vary in different parts of the world. In the UK, the law covering the creation and use of GMOs is set out by the Health and Safety Executive. This requires any experimentation to undergo strict risk assessment, notification of the authorities regarding any GM activity, and total clarity and public availability of information gathered by the research (HSE, 2011). In this case, Sang and her team at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh have complied with these regulations and the necessary details are included in the final paper (Lyall et al, 2011). Read the rest of this entry »


Synthetic biology: “Playing God”?

December 31, 2012
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).


Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a bioethical feast

December 31, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, now available on DVD, was one of the blockbuster releases in the summer of 2011. A prequel to the classic series of films (5 cinema releases between 1968 and 1973, TV spin-off and Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of the main Planet of the Apes), the new movie tries to offer a plausible mechanisms for the evolution of apes into a dominant global force.

(Warning: contains spoilers!) The new film is a veritable gold-mine for discussion of ethical topics, it would make as excellent vehicle for an engaging “film night”. In terms of bioethical issues, the film touches on all of the following:

  • Research ethics – there are lots of examples where aspects of the conduct of research are raised (some of which are picked out specifically in the list below). The motivations for doing research are touched upon at several points in the film – these include financial gain, fame and a desire to do good, both for mankind in general and specifically for the benefit of a relative in need. GenSys boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is the embodiment of profit as a driver for research whereas Will Rodman (James Franco) represents more noble aspirations. A discussion of the ethics of research funding could follow naturally. Read the rest of this entry »

Model Organisms in Biomedical Research

September 8, 2011

We have recently published the latest of our videos on bioethics. The subject this time is the use of model organisms in biomedical research (it last six and a half minutes). I am particularly please about this one as it is the first of two main films that have been at the core of a project supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (the other film, due for completion shortly, is on Comparative Genomics).

For reasons I needn’t go into these videos have had longer gestation than a baby elephant but we are very pleased with the outcome and hope you will agree that they have been worth the wait. In the fullness of time there will also be some structured suggestions for how to use these videos in a teaching context.

Production of the two main videos has resulted in the release of seven further films as side-product of the project. These have been previously mentioned on this site, see here for a list.


Ethics in the biosciences (Resource)

September 8, 2011
cover of briefing document

The Briefing contains recommendations about useful resources for teaching about various aspects of bioethics

Anyone involved in teaching ethics to bioscience students should get hold of a copy of Ethics in the biosciences: Resources, references and tools for ethics teaching in the biosciences. This is the second Briefing document produced by the UK Centre for Bioscience (the first was on Assessment).

The new booklet includes coverage of the following topics:

    • Teaching ethics
    • Assessing ethics
    • Ethical theory: How are ethical decisions made?
    • The ethics of being a scientist
    • Environmental ethics
    • Issues at the beginning of life
    • Issues at the end of life
    • Genetics and genomes
    • Animal experimentation
    • Transhumanism
    • Ethics and Risk

Each chapter includes a short introduction written by an expert on the topic and then a recommendations of other resources (websites, books, articles, slides, videos, etc) which have proven to be useful in teaching on the subject.

In addition to the online version of the booklet, a number of hard copies have been produced – if you would like one please contact the UK Centre for Bioscience before December 2011 when, unfortunately, their activities will be substantially scaled back.


Headline bioethics

June 3, 2011

The Headline Bioethics study guides are being hosted on the Virtual Genetics Education Centre at the University of Leicester

Headline bioethics is a new series of resources for teaching about bioethics. There will be two styles of Headline bioethics resources – study guides and commentaries. For both sets of material, each resource is focussed around a news story which raises interesting ethical question in the fields of biology and biomedicine. The selected stories must all be available as a video clip on the BBC news website.

Study guides include background information and structured worksheets which teachers can either use “of the shelf” or customise for their own purposes. Commentaries are authored by undergraduate students and offer reflections on some of the ethical issues raised by the news story.

The ethics of GM crops is one of the topics considered in Headline Bioethics

The first two study guides, on Genetically Modified crops and Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, are now available.  These Headline bioethics resources was authored by Sarah Curtis, a TULIP intern at the University of Leicester. If you have thoughts about these materials, or suggestions for future topics that you’d like to see covered in this way, then please let us know.