Tissue Regenerating Plastics From Bugs – CPS Talk 02/12/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 12 December 2014

-Article by Stephen Leach


Out of the 10 lectures I’ve witnessed this term, this was the first delivered by a female academic. According to WISE (Women into Science and Engineering), women represent only 13% of the employees in STEM industries. Once I’d finished my Garibaldi biscuit and gotten over the gender imbalance in the CPS microcosm, I focussed on the impending wave of awesome research that was about to break over the heads of the CPS devotees.

The talk was entitled: “Tissue Regenerating Plastics from Bugs” and was delivered by Dr. Ipsita Roy, Reader at University of Westminster and Guest Reader at Imperial College London. Having ‘bugs’ for a workforce can be pretty productive it seems; they are abundant, renewable and can be stimulated to tirelessly manufacture all manner of chemicals. Bacterial cells are able to synthesize molecules far more complex than humans can manage in a lab, for example, bacterially synthesized human insulin replaced the need for pig insulin, which understandably not all people would tolerate. Incidentally the molecules that Dr. Roy was discussing were not complex, but are destined for complex applications.

Dr. Roy is aiming to synthesize a biocompatible polymer that acts as a scaffold for the regeneration of new tissues in humans. She has found that one family of polymers show such diversity in their properties that they may find multiple applications within the body. All thanks to the industrious bacteria.

These polymers are produced naturally in some bacteria in order to store energy and carbon, analogous to the role of starch in plants. The polymer is a polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), these have variable side chains and varying lengths of unsaturated carbon chains between the polymerising functional groups, it is essentially a polyester. Dr. Roy has been championing this material for bio-implant applications because it is bio inert, it happily supports cell growth and displays such a range of useful mechanical properties. For example, by slightly varying the number of (CH2) linkages in the chain the elasticity of the material can be changed by a factor of 1000.

I know I’m most productive when I eat molasses all the time and the little Bacillus Cereus are no different, in fact they gave a PHA yield of 80% of their dry cell weight.

The polymer is hoped to have applications for cell growth in bone, cartilage, skin and even heart tissue.

Using a composite of PHA and BioGlass (an existing osteogeneric material), Dr Roy is tinkering with a substance that reproduces the mechanical properties of bone, stimulates new bone growth and eventually harmlessly dissolves when the new bone is in place. Investigative work is being done to incorporate carbon nanotubes into the mixture to improve mechanical strength and provide a non-invasive means to monitor the material since the nanotubes are conductive.

The polymer can also be formed into amphiphilic microspheres which can be used to deliver and release drugs at a controlled rate, this technology could be implemented along with other applications to deliver antibiotics at the sites of new bone growth, preventing possible infection.

Finally the material can even be used to make patches that could stimulate the growth of new cardiomyocytes over scar tissue in the heart. Tests have shown that cardiomyocytes are supported and grow well on the material in-vitro.

Its early days for this polymer, so far it has been FDA approved for use as a suturing material, this shows that its biocompatibility is fully trusted. Dr. Roy is ready to follow up with a whole range of new products, for example, stents, nerve conduits and perhaps in the future some of the more exotic cases as mentioned above. 

With that the CPS lectures for the term are done. All that is left on the horizon this year is the CPS Christmas quiz…

The Chemistry of Respiratory Medicines – CPS Talk 25/11/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 4 December 2014



- Article by Stephen Leach



Stephen Swanson, a research and development manager of Respiratory Medicine at Glaxo Smith Kline arrived at the CPS with tales of drugs. A veteran of 32 years in medicinal chemistry, he must know the world of corporate chemistry well. Amongst the ranks were mutterings of dissent with regards to the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry, however he focussed on the science and glossed over the business. A costly business in which R&D is a serious financial strain on the pockets of the investors; <5% of research projects ever become a publicly available drug. This means sadly the successful molecules foot the bill for the research cost of all the unsuccessful ones.

The development of a drug is a rocky road; scientists, lawyers and business people all at some point chaperone these small molecules on their way from the lab into our bodies. Stephen was firmly driven by the desire to improve therapies and gave us an account of the maturation of Salmeterol, a much improved commercially available asthma drug.

It all starts with a target in the body, in this case the adrenergic receptors. The function of these receptors are fairly well understood, they are the targets for natural hormones such as adrenalin. If something makes you jump, you may feel the effect of these receptors; adrenaline in the bloodstream alters a number of bodily functions simultaneously. Digestion is de-prioritised and the bowels are put on stand-by, (unless it REALLY made you jump). The heart speeds up and in seconds the body is poised for fight or flight. Adrenergic receptors are a type of G protein and they come in 5 types. For the treatment of an asthma attack, the drug molecule must target a single one of these receptors: β2. This prevents an asthma sufferer from getting the full raft of adrenergic responses during an attack. What they may especially need is bronchial dilation so that they can breathe properly, β2 stimulates such a response. Hence GSK want a molecule that acts as an agonist for β2 but preferably not the others.

Adrenaline is a simple looking molecule and is an agonist for all the adrenergic receptors. If you are feeling whimsical, look up the following molecules in the given order to see exactly how the molecule was changed over the course of 20 years.

Isoprenaline was the first attempt, it is pretty similar to adrenaline and was developed into a therapy. However it wasn’t selective enough to β2 and had some dangerous effects on the heart as it was acting as agonist for β1. In addition the body would quickly metabolise the molecule, this required more frequent dosage and raised the risk of overdose. This was solved by the addition of a large lipophilic component, giving Salbutamol. The selectivity had been improved but the metabolism problem had not. Next up was Salmeterol which was the ideal candidate, selective and long lasting, even the metabolite remained selective for β2.

Each of these was a marketed drug in its own right but at each iteration the therapy was becoming less dangerous and more effective.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of a privatised drug industry, which may not always appear conscientious, we’ve come a long way since trepanning, let’s be grateful for that.


Robert Angus Smith, Acid Rain and the ‘Monster Nuisance of it All': CPS talk – 18/11/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 20 November 2014


-Article by Stephen Leach


This week the CPS-ers were delivered a portrait of Robert Angus Smith, courtesy of independent researcher and science historian Peter Reed. Robert Angus Smith is credited to be the first person to use the term ‘acid rain’ and he was one of the first people to straddle the political scientific divide. In the nineteenth century, new industries brought new pollutants and health risks, so legislators began enforcing safe practise on the industrialists for the benefit of the workers, the public and the environment. At the centre of this was Robert Angus Smith.

Circa 1840, Darwin’s ‘Origin’ was yet to be published, the laws of thermodynamics were driving the emerging industrial revolution and an atom had yet to be defined. New scientific ideas were pervading all arenas of life and like all young men of sound mind and good prospects, Smith was torn between an education in science or religion. He chose chemistry and was educated in Giessen, Germany, under Justus Von Liebig, a pioneering educator of the sciences. With the emergence of a technical society, its associated problems were increasingly being found on the desks of the professional scientists. With regards to pollution and safety, the government was keen to put the onus of responsibility on the capitalists but still required legislation overseen with some scientific expertise.

Industries manufacturing glass, paper, textiles and soap all required a supply of ‘soda’, Na2SO4. It had long been harvested from natural resources, but the demand was increasing largely. The Leblanc batch process was a means to chemically synthesise soda in tonnage quantities from rock salt and sulphuric acid. Along with a viscous sulfur pollutant called ‘Galligu’, (which was liberally thrown over the land around the factories of Widnes, Runcorn and St Helens), was a more immediately troublesome substance: HCl gas. Around 250,000 tonnes per year were entering the atmosphere.

In 1863, ‘The Alkali Inspectorate’ was established with Smith at the helm. Policy makers were aware of the dangers of HCl and they set out to curb emissions by 95%. This was achieved by the invention of the acid tower by a Lancashire manufacturer, William Gossage. The problem was circumvented somewhat; emissions were cut by dissolving 95% of the gas in water. The gas was passed over huge arrays of wet obsidian bricks and it would dissolve into the water. Smith was tasked with visiting factories and ensuring that targets were being met. Here we learnt of an amazing device called the ‘Compound Self Acting Aspirator’. Since the inspectors could not be everywhere at once and the capitalists could not be trusted unconditionally, this device would periodically collect samples of the gas output to ensure that the plant was law abiding, these samples could then be collected later and analysed in a lab. Overall, air quality greatly improved but this was at the expense of the waterways into which the dissolved HCl would flow.

Smith went on to be Head Inspector for River Pollution in addition to his existing responsibilities. His scientific background and government association made him a prototype of the numerous advisors that today consult world governments on policy. The centralised regulation of industries is commonplace now and much of the good practise of UK industry and environmental protection has its origin in the Alkali Inspectorate, which by 1956 covered 1,794 chemical processes. It is a situation still highly relevant today; novel industrial processes must be subject to legislation, ‘fracking’ in the UK being a good example.

Smith‘s lifetime coincided with a dynamic time for the role of the scientist in the UK; a respectable profession it had become. Materialist philosophies were challenging religious conservatism and the momentum of today’s technological culture was building. At a glance life may seem different today but we are still part of the epoch which was burgeoning at that time.


Arsenic in Drinking Water: a Global Problem – CPS talk 11/11/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 14 November 2014

- Article by Stephen Leach


This week the CPS was fortunate enough to be visited by Professor Neil Ward; an analytical chemist from the University of Surrey, newly invited Fellow of the Royal Society and recipient of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education. All round great guy, (who’s definitely not Australian). So what has warranted this sort of decoration? His work spans scrupulous analytical methodology and the advancement of education and policy in developing countries, a pretty healthy combination.

Prof. Ward has been actively investigating the extent and speciation of arsenic in drinking water in Argentina, which the World Health Organisation has ranked in the top ten chemicals of public health concern. He placed a great emphasis not only on the severity of the problem but the necessity of knowing the speciation of the arsenic. That is, beyond the identification and quantification of arsenic, the precise chemical species is also discovered. This is important since the toxicity of arsenic depends on the nature of the chemical species present.

The origin of arsenic in the soil is completely natural; it results from the volcanic activity responsible for shaping the continents. Large volcanic eruptions coat vast areas in ash containing amongst other things, arsenic. When Mount St. Helens in the US state of Washington erupted in 1980, 110 kg of arsenic was distributed over a 230 square mile area. As a direct result of that eruption the total arsenic per litre in drinking water went over the 10 microgram safe limit defined by the World Health Organisation.

Numerous eruptions have occurred throughout the geological history of the planet, resulting in the presence of arsenic on all continents. In Argentina, Prof. Ward found ~ 6000 μg/L levels of total arsenic in drinking water, which was often the only water source for people living in certain regions. As a result arsenic has been causing serious health problems and threatening human life in poor rural communities.

A major point made in his lecture was that much of the current literature had wrongly categorised the predominant species of arsenic and that this was a of result poor field work practises. It was thought that the predominant species was As(V), when in many cases it was actually the more toxic As(III). This arose due to the oversight of redox reactions occurring in arsenic between the time of sample collection and time of analysis. A slightly disengaged assumption that a sample being stored and transported across the world, will be unchanged and fit for meaningful analysis at the other end.

Arsenic analysis has also been thwarted in mass spectroscopy techniques by the formation of ArCl+ in-situ during examination of the arsenic species. Arsenic is mono-isotopic with an atomic mass of 75 Da, which is the same as the contaminant noble gas halide species. Prof. Ward made significant discoveries by carrying out solid phase extraction of the arsenic species at the point of collection, allowing for all arsenic species to be separated and prevented from undergoing chemical changes prior to analysis. This methodology has allowed for much more accurate results to be obtained. Unfortunately the discovery showed that the predominant species is in many cases is the more toxic As(III). Beyond that discovery, Prof. Ward and his team have begun to investigate the nature of the geological chemical systems. One profound suggestion was a relationship between arsenic and vanadium. Data shows that vanadium concentration is proportional to As(III) concentration and that vanadium may in some way be protecting people from the ill-effects of As.

Prof. Ward’s passion rang out throughout his lecture. He has not been limited to a life in the lab, recently he has been visiting schools in Argentina showing pupils how to carry out rigorous analytical work and become more active in shaping their communities and making demands of their local councils. All round great guy indeed; he’s from New Zealand, but you’ll find him here.


Energy and matter at the Origin of Life – CPS Talk 4/11/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 7 November 2014

- Article by Stephen Leach




Tackling the origins of life was never going to be trivial but oh my, did the CPS audience get pebble-dashed with science last Tuesday night. At the altar was Dr Nick Lane of UCL genetics; author of “Power, Sex and Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life”. Dr Lane took us back to a time so distant that the Eukaryotes were still a twinkle in the eye of the Archaea and still further back to when life was just a twinkle in the eye of pH gradients. I can’t tell you what is the origin of life, instead I’ll attempt to recreate here the sense of awe and stupefaction that I felt as I stumbled out of that lecture.

Once upon a time only spiritual leaders would have had the authority to discuss the origins of life. Now, we’ve got NASA, and they say life is:

“A self sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution”.

Dr Lane’s first gambit was to kill off the idea of a primordial soup, suggesting there is little supporting evidence that life sprang from such a broth. Soup is low energy and high entropy, the precise opposite of life. Wachtershauser was one of the first scientists to suggest that life’s origin has a volcanic context. In what is known as his ‘Iron-Sulfur world’ Wachtershauser suggested that some kind of metabolism predated genetics, an energetic process that could have been a precursor to the ion gradients which now drive the creation of the ATP molecules that power our cells. The only physical characteristic that unites all living things is the transportation of ions up a concentration gradient over a membrane.

All forms of life around today can be classed as bacteria, archaea or eukaryote. The eukaryotes were spawned from the archaea, leaving only two sources. They exhibit significant differences such as their membranes and genetic replication, this suggests they could have developed independently. The crucial similarity between them is the universal notion of membrane energetics, just so happens they have different membranes.

Next we must plunge to the bottom of the ocean to The Lost City Vent Field, these are alkaline volcanic hydrothermal vents and crucially they consist of porous rock and a pH gradient. Dr Lane proposes that these structures could have been the home of ‘LUCA’ the last universal common ancestor.

Here my hazy description becomes hazier still, at this point in the lecture, the rate of information entering my head and the rate of information exiting had balanced. The last legible notation I made was:

“Equilibrium is death”

In short, Dr Lane went on to describe how these vents could have provided the environment that would lead to sort of energetic processes living cells still possess today. In addition he discussed the factors that would need to be added into the model to make sure that the laws of thermodynamics were strictly obeyed but also that equilibrium is never reached because cells in equilibrium; like batteries; expire.

For the last part of the lecture, Dr Lane extensively referred to a paper published last August by himself and some UCL colleagues [1]. If you have institutional access, why not indulge yourself in some avant-garde bioenergetics? Although PLoS Biology, the journal in which you’ll find this paper, is open access, so anyone can look at it!

I felt as though a collection tin could’ve been passed around at the end of the lecture, such was the confusion and elation I felt. It could’ve been the pre-talk double dropped doughnuts wearing off. Either way the origin of life is in safe hands

[1] V. Sojo, A. Pomiankowski, N. Lane. PLoS Biol. 2014 12(8): e1001926​


The Science of Magic: Why Magic Works – CPS Talk 28/10/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 4 November 2014

- Article by Stephen Leach




The Chemistry Auditorium is no stranger to magic, I’ve had a few lectures in there that have been really memorable. However, last Tuesday evening a bona fide entertainer graced the stage: Dr Gustav Kuhn; Magician and Psychologist from Goldsmiths University London. Magic and science – who would unite such contrary disciplines? Dr Kuhn uses the cognitive loopholes exploited by magicians in order to probe the inner workings of our brains. Here follows a brief and incomplete iteration of how Dr Kuhn demonstrated to us how magic informs science.

Firstly he set out a definition: “magic is the conflict between what we see and what we believe is possible”. It is therefore a concept of our own construction, limited consciously by our belief system and unconsciously by our neural network. Magicians employ illusion and misdirection in order to achieve their sordid goals and their success is due to the perceptual frailties that already exist in our minds. Frailties is an unfair term, I suppose we consider it a failure when we are tricked but consider the case of the ‘Hollow Mask’ illusion. If you have never seen it, enter it into your favourite search engine and prepare to be impressed for the duration of a masks rotation. It’s a case of the habitual reinvention by our brains of what we observe, which in this case is no frailty. There are some primeval processes at work that get working in our brains long before logic or reasoning has a chance to chime in.

One way to expose neural activity is functional MRI and it has been carried out on people subjected to magic tricks. They found that an area of the brain called the Posterior Cingulate Cortex fizzes the most. The analogy Dr Kuhn made was that it is like when you automatically walk home along a well-rehearsed route and you have to consciously remember to buy milk. The PCC is the part of the brain that gets annoyed when you forget to buy milk and have to settle for black tea.

If you are tricked don’t dismay, it just means that you are following the social cues crafted by the magician. From eye tracking experiments Dr Kuhn showed us that the ‘tricked’ person can be misdirected constantly, having their attention diverted to the places that will insure they are eventually dumbfounded. The social cue can be a simple gesture that will misdirect the audience at the precise moment of trickery.

Dr Kuhn is particularly interested in visual perception and highlights how our focus is rather narrow when subjected to numerous stimuli. The brain is forced to conduct a thorough editorial regarding what’s important and tends to fill in a lot of blanks as it sees fit. Being able to see movement in our peripheral vision could have helped our ancestors to avoid predation but to see colours in our peripheries is not so important. We only observe colour in what we are directly looking at, the brain fills in the rest. The brain is pretty neat, but has its foibles. Dr Kuhn asked the audience to participate in a ‘Change Blindness’ task. This is when our perception becomes… blind to some change. It featured a ‘spot the difference’ between two alternating photographs, why don’t you cruise the internet for a gif. for 5 seconds of entertainment and see if you too are blind to change.

In conclusion I was so engrossed in what Dr Kuhn was saying and doing that I forgot to write anything much down, in my defence I was just following the social cues. For his final trick I was hoping Dr Kuhn would make some members of the audience disappear, specifically the four guys sat behind me who couldn’t keep their mouths closed. Just in it for the pizza no doubt. tut tut.

Next up, origins of life.


Careers Talk – CPS Talk 21/10/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 29 October 2014


- Article by Stephen Leach




The CPS invited some professionals of industry to describe their experiences and the progress of their career. Pre-talk I spoke to a year 3 CPS member for whom this was the first CPS event they had ever attended. The reason was the simmering urgency found in the autumnal years of formal education, when the big bad world is looming over the horizon. A common question in my year group at the moment is: “What do you want to do when you leave University”. My retort; is sadly predictable. Ergo I need some careers advice!

If you are like me, long term planning is firmly entrenched in the back of the mind. Occasionally it surfaces with its frightening and profound implications only to be beaten back by more pressing and transient short term counterparts. Here follows a very short account of how the CPS guests persuaded its audience to entice into the forefront of their minds the idea that we possess complete control over our future careers.

In short, I wasn’t convinced that there is a paint by numbers method of securing the ‘perfect career’. All the speakers agreed that everyone is an individual, which accounts for our differences in what drives and motivates us. The RSC asked us “What does success look like for you?” Told us “don’t leave it to chance.” The career that forms most quickly may not be the most stable one. The speakers from GSK and Johnson Matthey represented those who had got their heads down in school and followed the research stream from university into the applied sciences of industry. They made it sound very straight forward and hopefully fuelled some fires in the crowd. The final speaker had a different take on things. The resounding idea in his talk is that we don’t have much control, that a whole ensemble of forces may disrupt our ‘plans’ and that the best thing we can do is to be prepared for change.

I came away wondering if I’m agile enough, flexible enough. Do I have the transferrable skills? Can I convince employers that I’m a safe bet? If you are wondering the same things then get in touch with UCL careers and they’ll tell you how to ace an interview and be the best you can be. Otherwise just try and do something you really love?

Here are some inspirational quotes from BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’.

If we went to Mars right now, I’d find a way to be excellent”

“My positive approach and very good looks make me stand out from the crowd.”

“There are two types of people in the world: Winners and… I don’t know how to say the word, I can’t say it.”

“I’m a ‘Great’ of my generation. I’m an innovator and leader in business. I take inspiration from Napoleon.”


Studying and Caring for Old Master Paintings: CPS Talk 14/10/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 24 October 2014


-Article by Stephen Leach

10321771_892836184060770_588734808802175067_oThis week the CPS were joined by Joseph Padfield, a conservation scientist at the National Gallery London. From ancient pigments to modern imaging techniques, the eager CPS audience where about to see through the eyes of a scientist charged with the upkeep of some of the UK’s most treasured paintings.

It began in 1823 when the Government bought 38 paintings for £57,000. In the following years the collection grew and so did the need for its preservation, the first steps taken were to move the entire collection from the Pall Mall to where it currently resides on Trafalgar Square, as Pall Mall was far too grubby for such an illustrious hoard. Air pollution was rather bad in 1800’s London and the first scientific consultation came from Faraday who noted that:

“A person of competent chemical knowledge might be valuably employed”

Now a full team of scientists reside in the gallery. They investigate painting materials and techniques; they are able to chart the weathering of artworks by natural or unnatural forces. They provide new ways of seeing the paintings and document the process of creation. Finally they employ non-invasive methods of preventative conservation.

Materials were treasured for their colours long before anything was known of their chemistry. Lapis Lazuli is a natural zeolite type base for the pigment Ultramarine. It has lent a glorious blue to paintings such as ‘The Girl with the Pearl Ear Ring’ by Vermeer and ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ by Titian. Colours demonstrate great variety in nature and were among the first qualitative indicators of materials undergoing chemical change.

In some case tiny samples are taken from the surface of paintings in order to investigate exactly which materials where used and in which order. One of these tiny fragments ~ 100 µm provides a cross section of the pigment, the binder and the varnish. From these particles the researchers can discover what techniques were being employed and whether the surface of the painting is still representative of the artist’s original concept. For example, ‘The Portrait of Alexander Mornauer’ by an unknown artist, had undergone an unnatural change. Analysis of the fragment showed a blue colour had been added over a layer of varnish, beneath which was a brown colour. This blue, which made up the background of the portrait, was found to be a Prussian Blue pigment, which was not used until 300 years beyond the established time of creation of this work. It therefore proved that some other individual had painted the brown background blue. The supposed reason for this alteration is that with a blue background it could be passed off for a highly valuable Holbein. It has since been ‘cleaned’ and as a result Alexander Mornauer is represented as intended, with a slightly larger hat.

Light can be a big problem for paintings, but it’s useful when it comes to looking at them. In the 1800’s the paintings were lit solely by daylight, which meant the gallery closed on gloomy days. Now artificial light is employed in concert with natural lighting but great control is exercised over the spectral range and intensity of the light. Some works of Mark Rothko are destined to slumber in dark storage as a result of the extreme light induced fading that the pieces were undergoing. Unfortunately colours may fade over time, the chromophores in organic pigments break down. In ‘The Rokeby Venus’ by Velazquez she now reclines on a sheet of dark grey which was once a rich purple. Painted foliage can appear blue instead of green as the yellow breaks down in the mixture. The fading of vermillion has been linked to trace chlorine quantities, which is why on icy days you’ll not find NaCl scattered on the floor around the National Gallery. The gallery employs LED lighting which has the least possible emission in the UV region and couples this with an automated shutter system on the windows which changes its position minute by minute in accordance to the time of day and year.

Finally we learnt how modern technologies have allowed new insight into how we see paintings. Once X-ray images were producible, it was not long until paintings were irradiated, the first instance being in the 1920’s. This exposed the guts of a painting, for example how canvasses had been patched together, how artists had painted over old works or made subtle changes to detail. For example, in the painting ‘Young Woman Powdering Herself’ by the pointillist Georges Seurat, the artist originally included a self-portrait, which for reasons unknown he decided to cover over with flowers. X-rays reveal that he is still there, peering out from behind the bouquet.

The Gallery also employs an automated image capture procedure which produces exceedingly high resolution images of the works. With such techniques, the 3D contours of the surface can be recorded so that the painting resembles a bas relief, making every brush stroke and indentation traceable. Digital capture of the artworks not only aids study of the pieces but also enables them to be reproduced and shared more widely than ever before. For exhaustive information regarding the science of art conservation at the National Gallery, see below.



Careless Scientist Turns Into Fly: CPS Talk 07/10/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 14 October 2014

-Article by Stephen Leach


This week there was no CPS lecture. Instead, entertainment came in the form of ‘The Fly’ by David Cronenberg. It’s a 1986 sci-fi horror masterpiece in which Mr Cronenberg charts the epic destruction of a brilliant scientist played by Jeff Goldblum who became perilously entangled with the common fly. This film explores how the initial improvements which accompany a scientific breakthrough are followed by dangerous uncontrollable consequences. Much like the martyred Miles Dyson, the computer scientist who created the circuitry that would go on to become the twisted brain of ‘The Terminator’. In the Terminator franchise, robots became so advanced and clever that they wanted to destroy the foolish humans who created them, (all time travelling paradoxes aside).


Yes these technologies are make believe and are accepted for dramatic effect. However the underlying theme has some reality. There is probably a quote from Jurassic Park which could sum up everything I’m getting at here but that would be too simple.

The question is: do science researchers inherit a greater amount of moral responsibility during their training than they sign on for? The film industry certainly says ‘yes’. The mass media says ‘yes’. Scientific findings are reported to the general public via news agencies with minimal reference to any of the assumptions made or experimental context. Once in the news, those findings from a controlled environment go on to directly influence people!


History also agrees in one very extreme case, which is depicted in a 1980 documentary by Jon Else, ‘The Day After Trinity’. Freely available online, it features a collection of interviews with people who had worked on the Manhattan Project or knew J. Robert Oppenheimer. Fifty years on from Hiroshima 1967 Nobel physics prize winner Hans Bethe, head of the Los Alamos Theoretical Division remarked “Individual scientists can aid nuclear disarmament by withholding their skills…” Even to discuss the weapon they created is to enter into a sticky moral debate.


As a chemistry undergraduate the closest I get to a moral issue is the use of excessive amounts of water in the teaching labs, or by accidentally misusing the waste recycling facilities around campus, (thankfully the chemistry department is addressing the former and I’m paying closer attention to the bins). Most people, researchers or otherwise will get through careers and life without becoming embroiled in any serious moral dilemmas. Is that due to a lack of them? Or due to a haziness around accountability and how empowered or disempowered we feel when faced with one? You only have to enter a supermarket to be faced with an ethical decision and discover that our system allows the ‘ethically sound’ shopping basket to cost more than its battery farmed equivalent. Stop giving me the choice to be morally lazy!


I’m confident that the majority of students embarking on scientific educations are striving to make the world a better place and trust in the academics we’ve encountered here at UCL to help us do so. Scientific research does transform society for the better. The more scientists delve into non quantitative moral issues, the more religious/political leaders cease to be the sole governors of morality.


Personally, I don’t even have the guts to tell someone to pick up their litter. ‘Doing my bit’ for society involves a highly expensive and long education. Thus are the complexities of procrastination.


This blog entry by the film maker Adam Curtis via the BBC has discussed this theme far more coherently than myself (or Jurassic Park), so take a look for some food for thought:




He says:


Science and scientists do all kinds of wonderful things. But when they venture into the social and political world they tend to get bent the way the ideological wind is blowing.”


If scientists are not bent by the ‘ideological wind’, then are they not at risk of ignoring the society which they are meant to serve?

Rhythm and Base Pairs – CPS Talk 30/09/14

By Penny Carmichael, on 6 October 2014


- Article by Stephen Leach


In the first of the weekly CPS talks this year, Dr Adam Rutherford visited the UCL Chemistry Department to discuss the unlikely companions of genetics and hip hop. As a conscientious biologist and geneticist he opened with a cautionary tale about incest. The Habsburg Dynasty of Spain (who ruled Spain between 1516 and 1700) had a family tree resembling more of a family web. ‘The Habsburg Jaw’ was their treasured facial feature and for this distinctive chin they risked the fertility and health of their descendants, inevitably ending their reign. Charles II, the last Habsburg, died heirless at 38; his jaw couldn’t save him. Genetics is hinged on the relation between the genotype (the genetic material) and the phenotype (the physical result of the expression of the gene). Hence the Habsburg Jaw is the phenotype for the expression of one or many genes which had been intimately shared around the family. In their defence, Dr Rutherford concluded the tale by reminding us that nobody is perfectly outbred.

Once this connection had been made, the curious scientist wondered about the possible transfer of genetic material between organisms in order to control novel unnaturally occurring characteristics. This is not a new idea; The Chimera, (a hybrid animal which is composed from parts of others) was originally found in Greek mythology and is often used in heraldry. ‘The Enfield’ for example, a chimera with the head of a fox, the body of a lion, an eagle’s talons and the ass of a wolf appaears in the London Borough of Enfield’s coat of arms. Human-like chimeras are found in H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’, which questions of how far science should interfere with nature, although it was vivisection at the time which had inspired its plot.

When Darwin wrote “The Origin of Species”, he chose to tread fairly carefully; he personally didn’t want to initiate a full renegotiation of the prevalent religious doctrine of the times. Hence the book opens with a chapter on Pigeon Fanciers, entitled “Variation Under Domestication” and presents incredibly lucid argument for his theory in the context of the controlled breeding of pigeons, which was at the time ubiquitous. The breeders select the phenotype they wish to preserve and allow that individual to breed; unnatural selection. If the phenotype was being preserved, then so must the genotype.

In nature, genetic material can be mixed by breeding or by the mechanisms of viruses, but in the modern laboratory genetic material can be shared with much greater control. Examples were given of some amazing current technologies: a plant which has been genetically modified to grow purple instead of green when in the presence of land mines. Yeast cultures which secrete diesel. Genetic logic based circuits which ‘calculate’ whether a cell is cancerous and if so, instruct it to kill itself.1

Finally that brings us to the hip hop analogy which serves to illustrate the idea that the progress/development/evolution of ‘a thing’ is propagated by the sharing or transfer of material. This analogy takes flight upon the recognition that early hip hop was built on samples, that is, pre-recorded music from another artist re-expressed in a new context resulting in a novel characteristic sound. The reorganisation of material had enlivened and enriched the final product, making it ‘fitter’ than its competitors. The creators of the chimera were DJ’s of the dark ages, mixing not beats but beasts. Darwin’s pigeon fanciers are like music producers, tuning and honing not the beats but the beaks and breasts.

As for the modern examples, the analogy changed. Genetic research brings with it ethical problems, while at the apex of hip hop were legal problems. In order for hip hop to become the hugely lucrative enterprise it now is, there had to come a restriction on the sharing of material, ownership and licensing were ushered in; survival of the richest. Dr Rutherford suggested that this meant the end of the genre, having lost its mechanism to freely exchange material. Although perhaps ‘speciation’ had taken place and the genre has not died, but changed its habitat. A similar struggle occurred in the biosciences as companies attempted to become legal owners of genetic material. Thankfully this has yet to occur. In genetics and hip hop such restriction could be considered stifling.

Dr Rutherford’s favourite rapper is Tupac Shakur, that’s an exclusive. However he chose to conclude with a quote from the American activist and Professor of Law; Lawrence Lessig:

“A culture free to borrow and build on the past is culturally richer than a controlled one.”



  1. See Xie et al. 2011 ‘Multi-input RNAi Based Logic Circuit for Identification of Specific Cancer Cells’