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Biology Wednesday at the Fest

By James M Heather, on 9 June 2011

Day two of the Festival had a distinctly biological flavour for me, as the talks I attended touched on many of the hot topics from recent years.

I started the day hearing about the Race for the $1,000 Genome. Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, being able to sequence an individual’s entire genetic make-up for under $1,000 has been the target that those working in the genomic field have been aiming for. To hear the experts talk about it, we’re almost there.

Getting there isn’t the challenge; at this point it’s practically inevitable. What happens when we get there is the problem. The experts picked over tricky questions, such as: who gets their genomes sequenced, what is done with the data, and will it be worthwhile to get it?
The panel had split opinions. Sequencing technologist Clive Brown was confident, and ventures that at least all of the younger people in the audience will have their lives saved through whole-genome sequencing at least once, while Sanger Institute and PHG Foundation affiliated expert Caroline Wright was more cautious, highlighting the limitations and some of the worries associated with having large amounts of such sensitive data available.

Next on the schedule was a frank discussion on Stem Cells. This event started as a thorough grounding in various aspects of stem cell biology, isolation of stem cells by microfluidics and tissue engineering with stem cells by constructing artificial scaffolds for the stem cells to grow around. This event also had the most audience participation, with interested festival goers keen to separate the hope from the hype.

Last of my academic talks of the day was the much anticipated Ethics of Synthetic Biology. An interesting discussion, but beset by that same thorny issue that plagues the field itself, that of definition; just what is synthetic biology?

Scientific editor and broadcaster Adam Rutherford had a good stab at explaining it, seeing it as more of a conceptual change to existing technologies, primarily those of genetic modification. Instead of biologists looking for means to answer questions, he describes synthetic biology as being populated by engineers who seek to extract from biology discreet ‘components’, which can then be rationally compiled into new and useful combinations, ushering in the third industrial revolution.

Bioethicist Andy Miah provided us all with a firm grounding of the range of ethical questions that surround this burgeoning new field, in a PowerPoint presentation of almost dizzying swish-ness. The real appeal of this talk was in demonstrating how the bioethics surrounding synthetic biology are nothing particularly new, but merely old philosophical questions rephrased with new subtleties and nuances.

Pulling on the reins in this talk was sociologist of science Jane Calvert, who offered the moderating counterpoints to Rutherford’s optimism. While bringing up some of the problems faced by synthetic biology itself (raising questions about the actual potential benefits and capabilities of the science), the more pertinent discussion was that of the sociology of expectations. By investing so much time, money and energy into synthetic biology, she asserts, we are committing ourselves to some possibilities at the exclusion of others, with no guarantees that it will pay off for society.

It was an interesting day, on matters close to my heart. Here’s hoping Thursday is just as good.

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