Hosted by Professor Matthew Cobb of the University of Manchester, Genetic Dreams, Genetic Nightmares took me back to his lectures during my undergraduate degree there. The professor of zoology is a Professor Brian Cox-like figure, having published seven books and contributed to many scientific news platforms (see BioNews 1070).
The three-part BBC Radio 4 series explores the birth and development of genetic engineering over the past fifty years. Each episode takes on a different era and the issues of the day.
The first episode discussed the pioneering genetic engineering experiments of the 1970s. At Stanford University, California, in Professor Paul Berg's lab, the first attempts to generate recombinant DNA – whereby the genetic material of one organism is combined with another – were underway. Hearing from Professor Berg himself was especially interesting. He explained that he wanted to transfer bacterial DNA into mammalian cells to understand how our cells worked.
In the lab, I often insert bacterial DNA into cells, but had never considered how this process became an everyday technique. Moreover, I was naïve to the fact that this development was alarming to many scientists worldwide when it was first developed. We heard from Professor Robert Pollack of Columbia University, New York, who flagged up the risk of generating bacteria with cancerous genes to Professor Berg at the time of his experiments. He made clear the potential risk of causing cancer pandemics using these technologies, which was sobering to hear considering the current conspiracy theories that suggest SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in and escaped from a lab.
Professor Cobb explained that the fears of the public and scientists culminated in the historic Asilomar conference of 1975; 'a scientific Woodstock' as it was known at the time. Scientists from across the globe met in California to decide whether genetic engineering could continue, and how it could be done safely – mitigating the risks that Professor Pollack had raised. Despite the meeting being regarded as the most famous of its kind, this was the first I'd heard of it. While it was interesting, I felt this episode focused too much on the history of this event compared to the actual biology and bioethical questions that caused the conference to be held in the first place.
Episode two changed gears, focusing on the commercialisation of genetically modified organisms. Being a biologist, not an economist, I mentally checked out upon hearing the words 'venture capital gain'. However, during my second listen, I realised that the discussion surrounding the generation of genetically modified (GM) crops was quite fascinating. I was intrigued to learn that the inspiration behind GM crops was a plant tumour-causing bacterium. This gave scientists, and the American agrochemical company, Monsanto, the technology to insert genes into plants and modify their genome.
This was exciting as it had the potential to reduce the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides. Dr Robert Fraley, a geneticist at Monsanto, recounted the eureka moment that all researchers dream of: 'I still remember... our tissue culture expert, running down the hallway... just screaming at the top of his voice, "it worked, it worked, it worked!".'
Professor Cobb explored the public opinion of GM crops at the time, the 1980s, with most people feeling very sceptical towards GM technology, and of course not much has changed since. I believe that GM crops have the potential to increase agricultural yield and efficiency – and expected Professor Cobb to agree with me.
However, he remained unbiased and carefully demonstrated both arguments. Professor Guy Poppy of Southampton University argued that the amount of insecticide used has largely decreased. Whereas Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher explained that herbicide resistance has spread to certain weeds, leading to a large increase in weed killer demand worldwide. This ultimately impacts many different ecosystems; as an environmentalist, I found this unnerving.
Episode three focused on the latest big advance in genome editing, CRISPR, which won Professors Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year. This approach offers hope for curing genetic diseases such as sickle cell anaemia. However, it also raises the moral dilemma of whether it is acceptable to manipulate heritable DNA. This happened in a 2018 scandal in China where Dr He Jiankui used CRISPR to alter the DNA of twin girls, arguing he had made them resistant to HIV (see BioNews 1029).
I remember being shocked by this in the news, however I was unaware of Dr Jiankui's 'breathtakingly low-quality science', as described by Professor Fyodor Urnov of the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Urnov explained that, with our current advancements in IVF screening, we have no need for heritable genome editing – and I agree.
Professor Cobb then explored gene drives – the effect of genetically altering a population to eradicate certain diseases. In laboratory settings, teams have inserted genes in mosquito populations capable of causing malaria to suppress their reproductive capability. I believed mosquitos to be dispensable to most ecosystems and thought this was a great idea; however, I was disappointed to learn that this is untrue and could perhaps have widespread ecological impact. It was fascinating to learn of the many aspects that must be considered before a gene drive can be implemented.
Overall, I found the series extremely interesting and accessible to those unfamiliar with the field. It also raised several important issues that are relevant to our daily lives. I enjoyed hearing from the researchers at the forefront of genetic engineering breakthroughs themselves, and I appreciated the balanced arguments presented throughout. As a result, I was ultimately left with more questions than answers about what is morally acceptable and what the future of genome editing holds.