Horizon: Playing God

Horizon, ‘Playing with God’ biology, genetics, synthetic biology. These are all terms we are vaguely familiar with. Biology and genetics take the DNA as building blocks for cells and make proteins that make tissues and muscles and bones that work together into complex systems such as humans. Man has always tinkered with this system. Farmyard animals are bigger, stronger, able to produce more milk, more beef, more wool by selective breeding. The flax from the cotton plants has been supplemented by synthetic materials made from fossil fuels. Evolution has been given a make-over. Now it has been speeded up and added to. The implication of the butterfly effect suggests that one part of the system is affected by another part. To what extent is not known until it is known. And I wish I knew, but I don’t. So what I have got is some cute phrases: making a silk purse from a goat’s ear. Each portion of a DNA molecule is a pair based in Watson and Crick’s double helix model. Each strand serves as a template for the next. Thymine always pairs with adenine and cytosine always pairs with guanine. In genetic engineering bacterial cells such as yeast have cells added from other organisms. Recombinant DNA is built into the body structure so there are no problems of the system reacting to reject it. In the case of the ‘spider-goat’ for example the proteins that allow a spider to produce a particular kind of silk are added to the mix of a goat. So a goat when it produces milk has a protein that allows it to also produce silk. Or in the case of yeast, sugars are converted into diesel for driving cars. What have made this new kind of industrialisation are computers. The binary code of software has mapped the binary code of DNA and produced the hardware of the first new combination that does not have a parent biological cell, but when ‘printed out’ is a new kind of living organism. There was talk of bio-hackers, changing the DNA sequences of an organism just for the hell of it. We are not at that stage yet. The software is there and its messages are being translated into living beings, but the hardware lag behind. How far behind I’m not sure. But as computer capacity increases exponentially ‘a brave new world’ is something I will see in my lifetime.