Playing God – A BBC Documentary About Genetic Engineering (Watch full online)
With great power comes great responsibility. Join Adam Rutherford in this full-hour exploration (The whole thing! Online!) of the progress and perils of our ability to cut and splice the very fabric of life on command.
“Life itself has become a programmable machine.”
That statement is a bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but certainly genes, DNA, etc. (the stuff that life is made of) can be synthesized, cut and glued back together with such ease these days that a first-week undergrad can do it (even without help from a seasoned veteran biologist such as myself). You could do it in your garage if you wanted. And where the genetic engineering of yesterday was all about putting a gene or two from one organism into another (like this paper, the precursor to Monsanto’s methods), the ease and cheapness of manipulating the tools of synthetic biology create an infinite pool of possibilities for completely human-designed life forms.
Rest easy, though. When it comes to completely synthetic life, we are still looking at a field in its infancy. Although smart dudes like Craig Venter have succeeded in creating a completely synthetic bacterium, it is an enormously difficult, sensitive and expensive thing to do. I really can’t emphasize how difficult it is, actually. But now is the time, in the early days of meaningful synthetic biology, as prices drop and methods improve, to ask ourselves what is appropriate and what is not.
This will be a global question, and a difficult one. For every drought-resistant strain of wheat that allows us to feed millions of starving children, we can not create another seed monopoly that promotes irresponsible use of herbicides. How do we ensure that the methods used to make plastic-producing bacteria are not the same methods that can produce dangerous bioterrorism strains? How do you feel about having “biohackers” able to order genes and bacteria at will, maybe around the corner from where you live?
Scientists will need to have open discussions. Nonscientists will have to be part of that discussion. This documentary is a must-watch for anyone who wants to know where the future of synthetic biology is headed.