Science: November 2008 Archives

Who wants to live forever?

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Well, I wouldn't mind. There's always something to be getting on with, and there are never enough hours in the day. Plus, the alternative has never seemed that appealing.

I've seen Aubrey de Grey's TED talk on the subject, too, and I knew the telomeres were important. But I don't fancy genetically engineering ourselves to get there.

Extraordinary arrogance.

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gmprotest.jpgThe Government is apparently considering keeping GM test crop locations secret. You can see why: activists (like me) have been known to use that information to remove threats to the environment (thanks for asking, I was acquitted on appeal). But why is it a threat? 

Well, these crops are made using DNA-weakening viral vectors to insert sequences from another species into a host crop. It's called genetic engineering to give it a veneer of precision, but in fact it's not quite as precise as pinning the tail on the donkey. 

The normal test to establish whether the DNA has successfully been taken up consists of dosing the seeds with antibiotics: the sequence added usually has an antibiotic resistance marker gene included.

This passes antibiotic resistance to the crop, which should immediately be no problem, and the whole process also weakens the gene structure, especially in the relevant area. There's also no good way to tell what area has been interrupted with the new sequence. Fans of Turing machines will be able to imagine what new code inserted in unknown locations does to the process. God knows, is the short answer.

This instability also makes it easier for GM material to pass to soil bacteria, who act like a genetic clearing house, and hence onwards, even into honey (limited DEFRA counter-argument). Even without that weakness, GM crops cross with wild relatives, especially oil-seed rape. The brassicas, it turns out, are particularly promiscuous

To add to that, the difference between GM crops and other environmental risks is that there's no recall. The material will spread, especially if it's advantageous to the plant or animal - herbicide tolerance is spreading in just this manner.

Bearing all this in mind, it's extraordinary for Professor Tim Benton, the research dean of Leeds University, to declare that: "There is absolutely no way we can move towards a world with food security without using GM technology."

That's what I love about science - the impartiality, the rigour, the open minds, and I'm sure Professor Benton will do everything he can to make sure this wonder technology is safe. 

It reminds me of the story of the no doubt equally responsible scientists who, appalled at the scientifically-based concern green fear-mongering over this issue, wanted to demonstrate that their GM tomatoes were entirely safe. They ate the tomatoes as a stunt, before someone brighter than them realised that meant the seeds of this unapproved tomato would soon be out in the wild, growing in sewage plants and beyond. Cue red faces all round.

Crystal ball.

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mysticmeg.jpgApparently Science Minister Lord Grayson has a sixth sense, the Sunday Times reports. Technically, it's the mystic skill of precognition he's claiming - second sight, in other words. (declaration of interest: the Brahan Seer is quite possibly an ancestor of mine)

Perhaps he's right - he certainly does appear to predict how good things will come to him. Famously, in 2002 he donated £50,000 to Labour, then his pretty incompetent company got a £32m contract. Next, he gave another £1m+ to Labour before getting a peerage and a ministerial role

Spooky! I wonder if Gordon has asked him who's going to win the next election..

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Science category from November 2008.

Science: September 2008 is the previous archive.

Science: December 2008 is the next archive.