Monday, June 14, 2010

Genetically modified news

I was interested to read a little story on the BBC this morning about two recent reports on "synthetic biology", these reports are particularly relevant following the recent creation of a living bacteria cell by Craig Venter. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), embarked on a public dialogue in late 2009 and have just published the results of their findings.

The main thrust of the commentary is that people are generally OK with genetic engineering so long as suitable legal controls are in place, an entirely reasonable position, however I found some of the commentary quite nonsensical, for example,

"The resulting report concluded that people wanted scientists who worked with the bits and pieces of life to do so with humility and respect for the material they were working with."

This sounds like religiously inspired obfuscation to me, what the heck are "bits and pieces of life" and how would you show respect for an adenine molecule? The fear about the future of this branch of Biology is understandable, the general ignorance of science is the real problem. Most people I have spoken to about this really don't grasp what it's about, some seem to still be living in what Carl Sagan used to call a "The demon-haunted world" a world of spirits and souls, life processes that are unknown, impenetrable and mysterious. Venter and crew are showing that reality is somewhat different. What most people fail to realise is that humans have been doing genetic engineering for thousands of years, we simply call it artificial selection. Take a look at this bovine, its called a "Belgian Blue" and has been breed specifically over hundreds of years for it's meat yield, is this what we mean by "natural"?


I don't know anyone who resists the need for legal controls around this work, and indeed pretty much everything that we do in the biological sciences, but then again who speaks for the potential beneficiaries of the products of this research?

New ideas are always resisted because new ideas alter the balance of power within Human relationships.

4 comments:

Chairman Bill said...

Some people don't know much about farming either. It's not a cow! It's a bull!

Steve Borthwick said...

CB, bullocks!, "cows" is a synonym for "cattle", but cattle cannot be singular so "cow" is an acceptable non-gender specific singular term for members of this family where the sex is unknown or irrelevant to the context of the sentence. (OED)

But, as I'm sure your recent sales training attests the customer is always right! so I've changed it to a generic British term, i.e. bovine (sounds more scientific anyway :)

G said...

Bovine's a generic Latin name. "Kine" Might be better.

Steve Borthwick said...

Thanks G, hadn't heard that one before.

This is turning into Etymology corner ;)