sat 15/08/2020

Horizon: Playing God, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Horizon: Playing God, BBC Two

Horizon: Playing God, BBC Two

An awe-inspiring if sometimes scary look into the new world of synthetic biology

Adam Rutherford and the frankly disappointing goat spider

“So you’re telling me that somewhere on this farm there’s an animal that’s part spider and part something else?” No, this isn’t a snatch of dialogue from the climax of a shlocky B-movie. These words were spoken calmly if sceptically by biologist Adam Rutherford who was our guide on last night’s Horizon. Rather disappointingly, however, when we did get to see this animal it looked wholly goat, and not in the slightest bit spider - although we were assured that there was spider’s silk in its unpromisingly milky-looking milk.

You see, the acquisition of spider silk in large quantities was the reason for creating this animal in the first place. Spider silk is one of the toughest natural substances in the world and so has myriad potential uses. But there’s just not enough of it to satisfy both our needs and the spider’s needs. And spiders are unfarmable because they are cannibalistic, so the only way to get reels and reels of the stuff was to implant some spider DNA into some goats.

Yes, much of this programme did seem like an elaborate April Fool's joke (the BBC’s spoof documentary on spaghetti trees sprung to mind) with its news of a completely synthetic life form nicknamed synthia, and the bio-bricks you can order online (along with the glue you need to bind them together) so you too can be Frankenstein-like bio-hobbyist. And just when I felt my mind couldn’t be boggled anymore, we were told that diesel fuel was being produced from “reprogrammed” brewers yeast.

Watch the BBC's 1957 April Fools Day joke featuring spaghetti trees

At times even the easy-going Mr Rutherford seemed awed by what he came across, despite being a biologist and therefore, one would have thought, used to the crazy stuff scientists get up to. He started to sound like a Blue Peter presenter with lines like, “Crikey, that’s amazing!” And my personal favourite, “It’s not just for fun though, is it?” as he gaped at the neat rolls of goat-generated spider silk. I almost expected him to conclude with, “And now back to the studio where Val will show you how to make your own spider’s silk from the milk of your pet cat or hamster.”

Experimental science could now be carried out in a garage near you by your local mad scientist

But perhaps we needed the childlike wonder and infectious enthusiasm of this Andrew Graham-Dixon of science to break us in gentle to this apparent seismic shift in our knowledge of the world which - if you thought about it in too much depth – might send you running to your bed to pull the duvet over your head, forever. This was a glimpse of a brave new world that left most writers of dystopian fiction at the starting post.

What disturbed most was the knowledge that experimental science, previously only practised by professionals with huge grants, could now be carried out in a garage near you by your local mad scientist. Although, on the plus side, it was suggested that if indeed you were an unhinged extremist of some description, it’s still easier to just make a nail bomb than dabble in bio-terrorism. One expert used the safety match as an unconvincing analogy to illustrate the fact that although you can buy the building blocks for all kinds of bio-adventures online, Mr Average would still be hard-pushed to destroy the planet. 

But the fact is that although modern biologists now seem to wield the power mystics and alchemists could only ever dream of, even they can’t defy the laws of physics by making something out of nothing. As Jim Morris of the watchdog group ETC pointed out, synthetic organisms aren’t so synthetic that they don’t have to eat something from the old-school living world. In other words, diesel fuel from brewer's yeast still needs trees to complete the equation, taking us straight back to the familiar depressing territory of a planet of ravaged rainforests and dwindling resources. 

But in the end, I’m for all this rather than against it. Yes, there are some potentially scary scenarios in which spider goats take over the world, but awe and excitement feel like more appropriate responses than fear, when synthetic biology is on the cusp of being able to conquer diseases by implanting synthetic cells under our skin so as to detect the beginnings of a disease and zap it before it makes itself at home. So let’s try not to worry about the dawning of a new era in which we wouldn’t have to rely on CGI to see what monsters man’s imagination can conjure. Maybe they'll create bee cows next - after all, that's where the real milk and honey is.

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