“We’ve found a way to take life and radically redesign it”, says Guardian Science Bloke™ Dr Adam Rutherford at the beginning of Playing God.
And boy, he wasn’t joking.
Disappointingly to anyone who hoped they’d be wearing a red and black mask and solving crimes, it turns out they look exactly like regular goats, but with a spider gene that causes silk to form in their milk.
Still, pretty impressive. But if you thought Spidergoats were weird, that was just the beginning: the unsettling canapé before the far more alarming main course. At least goats and spiders already exist, it was just a case of smooshing them together and chopping off any spare legs. But in 2008 scientists (or ‘boffins’, if you read The Sun) created the very first entirely synthetic life form..wait for it…called ‘Synthia’.
As we explored these – admittedly impressive- developments, Rutherford kept banging on about how cool and exciting it all is, how thrilling, how full of potential etc. In the hands of these enthusiastic scientists DNA becomes a toy: Lego blocks to be pulled apart and put back together to form biocircuits, living computers, terrifying semi-mechanised lobstercrabs with laser eyes…that sort of thing. But there was little exploration of the ethics behind manipulating living organisms.
In Cambridge, we’re introduced to a team who took a protein from squids that make them reflective, built a ‘biocircuit’ or cell factory which could produce said protein in a lab (what, no goats?) and used it to create a substance that changes colour when you breathe on it. However, the advances aren’t based on their own research, they built on discoveries made by other scientists who’d made their research open source.
Rutherford is thoroughly thrilled, but surely it’s also a tiny bit worrying: doesn’t open source science mean there’s a chance that the speed of these developments- mixed with the excitement of ‘hey, look what we can do! It’s a hoover that’s also a cat!’- might overtake the ‘um, should we really be doing this?’ factor.
And even if you hate cats (and goats), there’s also the question about who’s really benefiting from these developments. Adam visits a big corporation in California who’ve industrialised synthetic biology. They’ve created a cell that can synthesize diesel: obviously a great thing to a degree…but this diesel will still produce CO2. Nevertheless, the company are ramping up production in an attempt to create a billion litres of the atmosphere-clogging stuff.
‘Crikey, that’s amazing!’ says Rutherford. ‘Wow!’
To be fair, after driving away in a bio-diesel fuelled car, he takes to the beach to do some soul searching about how far synthetic biology should be allowed to go, although he’s disparaging at the same time, saying how ‘Hollywood thinks they’ll escape and crawl through drains into your cappuccino’.
Of course the public can be reactionary (and a bit thick) and it’s very important that science documentaries don’t pander to that, but the Top Gear style approach of Playing God seemed to focus a bit too much on the ‘wow, gosh, ace, cool’ side of things and not enough on ‘should we really be creating a dog made entirely from boobs?’.
He then headed off to talk to another bloke (very bloke-heavy programme, this) about the potential for bio-terrorism (low: apparently it’s much easier to go and buy the ingredients for a nail bomb from a hardware store than get a PhD in Advanced Genetic Manipulation. Thanks for the tip!).
Again, that seemed to miss the point a bit. Instead of addressing the ethics of manipulating life, he just focusses on the potential consequences.
Of course it’s wonderful that we can amend a cell so it can protect astronauts from UV radiation: but on the whole it seems like Big Industry are the people most likely to reap the potential benefits. Messing up goats to make cheap silk seems a rather base use of the amazing opportunity synthetic biology offers.
And it’s likely that big corporations will take things to their profit-driven limits, as ever. We already use live jellyfish as ornaments: it’s only a matter of time before they’re made to glow in the dark= living lava lamp!
Actually, that’s my idea. You can’t have it. *files patent*
Horizon is on BBC2, Tuesdays at 9.30pm. You can catch up here