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Do Scientists Dream of Synthetic Sheep?

  • Synthetic Biology Dr Jack Heal (1)
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  • Synthetic Biology Dr Jack Heal

Imaginatively entitled “Do Scientists Dream of Synthetic Sheep?” Dr Jack Heal delivered a fascinating presentation to open this year’s series of Arts and Science Enrichment lectures at Bolton School Girls’ Division. His talk introduced the world of Synthetic Biology: the human engineering of biological systems that, as he explained, is sometimes called “genetic engineering on acid”. The 31 year old told the audience, comprising the general public as well as pupils and staff from Derby High School and Bolton School, that this $10 billion industry is one of the UK government’s Eight Great Technologies. He impressed upon his captivated audience that its potential impact is hard to overstate, that it is developing rapidly and that we can and should understand it!

Sprinkling his presentation with incisive humour - he has taken five shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - he charted the discovery of DNA as being a three dimensional double helix in 1953 through the 2000 Human Genome Project, through Craig Venter’s development of the “Synthia” (synthetic life-form) bacterium, “Dolly the Sheep” and even up to predicting the next winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry as being Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work in genome editing.

During his talk which focussed on the reading, writing and editing of DNA as well as the ethical issues the subject raised, he championed three key phrases: “with great power, comes great responsibility”; “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”; and “stuff is going down in Synthetic Biology”.

Addressing the question of whether we will ever be able to bring dinosaurs back to life, he felt this would not be feasible. DNA, he explained, breaks apart all the time and we do not have any dinosaur DNA. The oldest DNA discovered is 700,000 years old and dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago! However, he explained how we could “sort of” bring other extinct lifeforms back to life and this had happened in 2003, although fleetingly, when a Pyrenean Ibex was brought back to life even though the species had become extinct 3 years earlier. So, technically, it is possible to bring back a species that has died out more recently and he cited woolly mammoths as often being used as an example of an animal we might be able to re-introduce; “Pleistocene Park” is an actual place in Siberia which has been set aside as a habitat for them if they were to ever be re-introduced! He talked of the incredible difficulty of this ever happening and the ethical question of why would we want to? He also spoke about a malaria cure from a plant found in tropical jungles which exists but is very difficult to access and the possibilities of growing this drug in the laboratory using genetically modified yeast. He told of “spider silk” and it being one of the strongest materials known to man and of how a spider goat had been engineered to produce spider silk in its milk!

After the fascinating talk there was a collection for The Against Malaria Foundation which, Dr Heal explained, is one of the best possible ways to ensure that your charity donation is well spent.

Forthcoming lectures in the series of free talks can be viewed here.

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