Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Login
Advanced Search

Search for
BioNews

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook


The Fertility Show


 

Radio Review: FutureProofing - Life

21 September 2015

By Dr Ross Cloney

Appeared in BioNews 820

FutureProofing: Life

BBC Radio 4, Monday 12 August 2015

Presented by Timandra Harkness and Leo Johnson

'FutureProofing: Life ', BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 12 August 2015


The key question of the 21st century may turn out to be: 'Who are we and what will we become?' The 20th century focused on our mastery of the physical world, and the early 21st saw the creation of virtual realities; now the focus shifts to our own biology. This question and the implications of its potential answers are explored in 'FutureProofing: Life', presented by Leo Johnson and Timandra Harkness on BBC Radio 4.

The two set out to understand the field of synthetic biology, a rapidly growing field, which applies the tools and culture of engineering to biological applications. Indeed, it is the convergence of biology, engineering and digital technology that makes synthetic biology possible.

But what is synthetic biology? After all, we've possessed the ability to genetically engineer living organisms for decades now. While debate still continues over the use of genetically engineered organisms, they're a commonly accepted fact of life, subject to well-established social and regulatory norms. To me, synthetic biology is genetic modification 2.0: not the alteration of a single gene, but the redesigning of whole genetic pathways and – the key distinction to me – the creation of novel biological mechanisms not previously seen in nature.

The presenters employ a nifty metaphor. Let's say the age of biology as an applied science dawned with the discovery of the double helix. Watson and Crick (and Franklin, etc.) are to biology what the Wright Brothers are to flight. Genetic engineering as we've known it, to me, is analogous to the World War One-era biplanes. Synthetic biology is, in the words of Johnson and Harkness, closer to jetliners or to the space shuttle.

And the future will have people constructing the biological equivalent of a Boeing 737 in their shed.

This is because synthetic biology is, more than any other current science, is a DIY endeavour not seen since the early days of the computer hackers. We meet laboratory scientists working on arsenic-sensing bacteria for use in poor villages, and Hackney hipsters modifying yeast to reduce the need for added sugar in food. It's a world of startling contradictions – the FBI is keeping a close eye on developments but seems to have a relaxed attitude for the time being, allowing the community to regulate itself through workshops and outreach programmes. Meanwhile, artists such as Daisy Ginsburg depict a future of biological machines which inspire the scientific community in ways unexpected.

I wasn't surprised by the attitudes of the scientists to their work. Having once been one myself I know there is no mad cackle as they play God. Instead, there is the familiar vibe of curiosity. Synthetic biology is a young field and has yet to acquire the commercialisation and negative connotations of early genetic modification. The people interviewed want to learn from nature and use those lessons to improve the world.

What struck me throughout, however, were the philosophical questions we must now confront. Craig Venter works on a machine that converts biological information to digital and back again, so the boundaries between the living, the non-living and the virtual blur. As he describes it, the cognitive map we have breaks down.

After talking to Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of CRISPR/Cas9 – a powerful yet relatively easy tool for genetic modification – the conversation turns to human genome engineering. Where are lines drawn to separate the bad from the good ... from the improved? As biology becomes editable, more akin to software, we now can ask what will we become? What should we become? We have power but need understanding.

Harkness leaves us with this conundrum: in a future in which our biology is infinitely malleable, what defines our humanity? Looking to the pioneers of synthetic biology, they conclude that, ultimately, it may be our desire to improve the world.

The Progress Educational Trust's public conference 'From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing: The Science and Ethics of Engineering the Embryo' is taking place in central London on Wednesday 9 December 2015. Find out more here.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

07 November 2016 - by Annabel Slater 
Dr John Parrington thinks the ethics of genome editing should be shaped by scientifically informed public debate, and he hopes his book will provide a starting point...
23 May 2016 - by Arit Udoh 
A group of scientists has been criticised for holding a high-level, behind-closed-doors meeting to discuss a project to synthesise a complete human genome within ten years...
26 October 2015 - by Dr Indrayani Ghangrekar 
'The future of humanity is at stake tonight,' said one of the panel members prior to the Royal Institution's debate on the future of synthetic biology. There's probably some truth to that...
19 October 2015 - by Jessica Richardson 
Researchers say that the gene-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 could be used to increase the safety of organ transplantation from pig to human...

12 May 2014 - by Siobhan Chan 
Bacteria with two extra synthetic DNA bases in their genome have been created in the lab for the first time...
31 March 2014 - by Rhys Baker 
The world's first fully-functional synthetic yeast chromosome has been created in an international seven-year effort...
15 April 2013 - by David O'Rourke 
Synthetic biology is being used in the hunt for a vaccine for H7N9, the new strain of bird flu emerging in China, with hopes it could shave a vital two weeks off the development process...
28 May 2012 - by Ruth Retassie 
A rewritable memory system using short sections of DNA to hold data in bacterial cells has been developed by synthetic biologists. Dr Drew Endy and his team at Stanford University in California produced the system after three years of work and 750 designs...
02 April 2012 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
Synthetic biology, which uses genetic engineering to build new genomes and organisms, has come under attack in a report published by Friends of the Earth and supported by over 100 other 'public interest' groups...

HAVE YOUR SAY
Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions


- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust

CROSSING FRONTIERS

Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction

Public Conference
London
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Jacques Cohen

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Andy Greenfield

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross


BOOK HERE

Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation