Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mindblowing Horizon documentary - Playing God

Last night I watched the latest BBC Horizon documentary Playing God and I was amazed. The doco is about Synthetic Biology, a new research discipline that uses artificial man made DNA to create new functionality in organisms. The process seems to be (I'm simplifying), that someone sequences a gene for making a protein (e.g., spider silk), that DNA sequence is stored digitally in a  database "of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems." I'm not kidding, that's a quote from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts based at MIT. Then lets say you want to make goats that excrete spider silk protein in their milk (the example used in the doco), you go to the Registry, download the part that you need and create the DNA from scratch (using some sort of DNA making machine). You then add your new gene to the goat's DNA and presto a goat that makes spider silk!
    Clearly the commercial implications for this technology are vast. Another example, in the documentary was brewers yeast that makes diesel oil from sugar water instead of alcohol. I've always loved Horizon docos since I was a kid because they are one of the few TV docos that don't dumb stuff down. In fact you often have to pay close attention to not get left behind. When I became a professional scientist I then realised that most Horizon episodes function on two levels; first the main topic area, synthetic biology in last night's show, and second a sub-text about the scientific method itself.
    This means that Horizon docos are valuable to all scientists outside of the specific discipline of the main topic. Playing God's sub-text was obviously about ethics. Not just the ethics around us creating life itself, but also the dangers of amateurs playing with this. In a great segment in the doco it showed a community club somewhere in the US of hobbyist who were building their own organisms. The show likened this to computer hobbyists in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, like the Homebrew Computer Club (incidentally the show was incorrect to say Bill Gates started by building computers in his garage; they meant Jobs and Wozniak with the Apple I). Another ethical dilemma was around synthesising diesel - seems like a good idea, oil from yeast, but the yeast needs sugar to feed on, which has to be grown somewhere and that land could be growing food, not sugar to make fuel oil.
   I highly recommend  watching this if you want to blow your mind. I can't seem to find the program on the BBC iPlayer now but it can be downloaded (illegally) from the usual sources. The show's presenter Adam Rutherford has a good article about the subject in the Guardian.