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).

Horizon: Jimmy’s GM Food Fight

December 8, 2008

In recent months, the debate that surrounds Genetically Modified (GM) food crops has been reignited by attempts around the world to deal with food poverty in developing countries and the ever increasing price of food across the globe (See The GM Food Debate). Concerns about both the availability and price of food has meant that people are now looking to viable agricultural alternatives to increase food production, including the potential contribution of GM technology. Jimmy Doherty (also seen on Jimmy Doherty’s Farming Heroes and Jimmy’s Farm) is a strong advocate for traditional and sustainable farming but, as he explains (Start – 00:02:00):

Jimmy Doherty "I love the way that I farm, but I am, I am a realist and I realise that the way that I produce food will not feed the world. A lot of people think that the only way to do that is to use biotechnology, GM crops and I'm not sure about that. I don't know if it is safe or not? I don't know what the consequences are? But what if the answer to feeding the hungry is using biotechnology?"

Jimmy Doherty "I love the way that I farm, but I am, I am a realist and I realise that the way that I produce food will not feed the world. A lot of people think that the only way to do that is to use biotechnology, GM crops and I'm not sure about that. I don't know if it is safe or not? I don't know what the consequences are? But what if the answer to feeding the hungry is using biotechnology?"

Horizon: Jimmy’s GM Food Fight is a BBC 2 programme first broadcast on 25th November 2008 at 9:00pm. There are also two clips from the programme available permanently online: ‘How to create a GM plant’ and ‘Amish farmers embrace GM crops’.

59pm 23rd December

BBC 2 Horizon: Jimmy's GM Food Fight. Full version available on the BBC iplayer until 08:59pm 23rd December

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The GM Food Debate

August 14, 2008
 This post develops and updates two previous resources produced by the BioethicsBytes team: Bioethics Briefing Number 2: Crop plant and genetic modification and Guide to streamed media 2. Genetic Modification. It consolidates recent media coverage of genetically modified (GM) crops and their wider implications for both local and global society. Through a series of short streamed videos it will provide teachers, students and others with the main arguments for and against genetically modified crops. The bioethical issues surrounding GM crops can be found extensively in both GCSE (AQA, Edexcel, OCR and WJEC) and A level UK Curriculum.
GM Food

BBC - Topics: GM Food

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Epigenetics – The ghost in your genes

June 30, 2008

Epigenetics – Turning genes on and off  

The BBC Horizon documentary The ghost in your genes, successfully explains a particularly complex field of science. Genetic inheritance has historically been thought of as involving the transmission of DNA from one generation to the next affected by occasional mutations in the DNA itself (00:04:37 – 00:05:50). “Up to now, inheritance is just the genes, the DNA sequence. I suspect that we’re going to be able to demonstrate that inheritance is more than that”, explains Professor Marcus Pembrey from the Institute of Child Health, UCL. A few scientists had hypothesised that the conventional genetic model and mode of inheritance was too simplistic to explain the complexity of human beings. The revelation that the human genome likely contains only about 30,000 genes (00:08:54 – 00:11:33), coupled with increasing experimental evidence, now leads scientists to believe that other factors allow genes to be switched on and off in response to environmental stimuli. The consequences of which may affect subsequent generations.

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Exploiting Genetic Knowledge – Visions of the Future (2)

January 11, 2008

The Biotech Revolution, the second episode of the BBC4 Visions of the Future series, continues to describe ways in which humanity is making a “historic transition from the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery”. Presenter Michio Kaku suggests that unlocking the basic code of life will allow us to “predetermine the destiny of life itself” and to manipulate it at the most fundamental level (Start-00:02:00).

The programme begins with Kaku having his “medical future rather than history” diagnosed via a series of genetic tests for complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. He describes this as an “owner’s manual” which will enable him to have greater control of his health, and to allow others to perhaps prolong their life by decades (00:02:20-00:06:20 and 00:20:05-00:23: 20). As a scientist, he is eager to discover what secrets his genome may contain however, as a person, he says “wait a minute, this could be a Pandora’s Box… I’m looking at a side of me I have never seen before, a side that has potential medical problems lurking there”.

Some of the issues raised here mirror those found in the ITV1 broadcast The Killer in Me, which illustrated particularly well the anguish associated with having such tests and the way actions could be taken in light of the results. In this programme, in contrast, there is greater emphasis placed on the potential impact on relatives and wider society that may result from taking the tests. “We really want to respect your privacy and the privacy of your relatives” the physician emphasises to Kaku.  Much of the future of this testing, if not the present, relies upon “the last great discovery of the 21st century, the Human Genome Project”.  Kaku believes that this event holds such significance that we will look at the history of medicine in two eras, “before genome and after genome”. “Having unravelled the fundamental code of our biology the stage is set for us to manipulate it” he adds (00:06:25-00:09:20). Read the rest of this entry »

The vivisection debate: Animals (More4)

October 16, 2007

Part of a season of programmes about aspects of animal use in research, this drama/documentary was first broadcast in December 2005. In the fictional story we are introduced to a research scientist involved in animal testing and to an animal rights activist intent on stop him.  The narrative develops from about 1997, when a TV documentary exposed genuine mistreatment of some animals at Britain’s largest animal research facility, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), see 00:16:07 – 00:17:31. Throughout the programme, Animals examines real life actions taken by animal rights activists and incorporates them in the plot of the story. A series of interviews with people who were directly involved in these events is also interspersed, and provides interesting insights into their personal experiences. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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.