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Dr Craig Venter, a leading US scientist in synthetic biology, talked on a panel yesterday at the LSE. As someone who dominates this area of scientific practice and a controversial figure I have inadvertently followed in my research, I jumped at the chance to hear him speak. Also on the panel who gave further insights into ethical, philosophical and practical issues were, Prof. Sarah Franklin (LSE), Prof. Peter Lipton, Dr Chris Mason (UCL) and Prof George Gaskell (LSE).

Venter who founded the J. Craig Venter Institute, has hit the headlines recently with his proposal to design a completely new life-form. Through his institute he famously pushed the mapping of the human genome, in fact he is amongst only two people who have had their genome sequenced, the other being James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA structure). Building on this research he now has bigger sights. He interestingly wants to gain comet samples to sequence bacteria found on the rock, to illustrate the transpermia taking place across the solar system.

The Institute researches areas including Human Genomic Medicine, Environmental Genomics, Synthetic Biology and Biological Energy. Actual outcomes include sequencing bacteria and microbes in the Sargasso Sea to find tens of thousands of new microbal species and tens of millions of new genes. Also constructing whole new artificial chromosomes. These can in the future create new microbes and biofuels that through microbal metabolism eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2) output into the environment and capture back current CO2 in the atmosphere .

Venter talked about the process of creating new synthetic chromosomes to establish the needs and importance of each gene. He used the metaphor of electronics to explain the processes behind the production methods. “Using new methods the group improved the speed and accuracy of genomic synthesis by assembling the 5,386 base pair bacteriophage φX174 (phi X)”. Here the software ‘bacteriophage’ is used like software to create and synthesis the hardware, to build the phi X 174 genome.

artists impression of bacteriophage

I am fascinated by synthetic biology and it’s potential to radically transform our technological production methods and our command on living systems. To quote from the institutes website:

“Fast becoming one of the hottest new fields of biology, synthetic biology has the potential to impact all areas of society. One of the tenets of chemistry states that to prove true understanding of a structure one must be able to synthesize it. The team at the Venter Institute is concentrating on new methodologies to synthesize large segments of DNA to eventually enable the construction of whole artificial chromosomes. This is the next logical step in genome biology as it is the only way to better understand the minimal component of cellular life and understand the evolution of life. Through new understandings of gene and genome function researchers could one day more efficiently develop pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and textiles.”

More to come on Venter’s talk and misuse and ethical implications.
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Whilst on a flying visit to Nottingham this weekend I caught the performance of Kindertotenlieder (Songs for dead children) by choreographer/artist Gisèle Vienne, as part of the brilliant nottdance festival.

The piece combined aesthetically stunning scenography, live black metal music by KTL (Stephen O’Malley & Peter Rehberg), narrative by Dennis Cooper and alongside human performers, the subtle movement of mechanic teenage sized dolls.

Not for the faint hearted, the piece perfectly demonstrated the power of live performance. The work arrested and assaulted the senses in its beauty, dark visions and relentless music, which inhabited the body with intensity of vibration and imagination.

Vienne considers the stage as a place to “resuscitate the dead”, a limbic space between dream and reality. Her work and creative skills produce amazing life-size dolls, enabling her to explore the central concept in her work- “the relationship between natural and artificial bodies”. Kindertotenlieder specifically draws on the representation of the body in traditional Austrian iconography and customs like the ‘Perchten’. The Perchten (pictured below), two of which terrorized the stage, are creatures who appear mid-winter to offer protection against demons and to punish cursed souls. A custom still alive today, Vienne explores the collision of fantasy, ritual, ceremony and reality.

Perchten

The piece as evident in its contextual references drew intelligently from juxtapositions. These include Feud’s notion of the ‘uncanny’ (something both familiar and alien), as well as dark narratives and violent depictions balanced by beauty and lightness of falling snow. Alongside the snow bringing a magic spectacle to the piece, I also found it to be an interesting device. Through its beauty and deathly silence it dominated the pictorial plane of the stage and physically erased the violent actions which previously unfolded.

By no stretch of the imagination was it an easy piece – but more challenging and disturbing in nature. For some members of the audience the show was too much but for me, it re-affirmed the importance of risk taking, the importance of live experiences and a respect for rare imaginative vision.

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Yesterday was the launch of Foresight‘s (Government Office for Science) Tackling Obesities report at the RSA , London. The report was the culmination of two years research and investigation into a future obesity epidemic.

Over the summer of 2006 I worked as an intern, alongside Jessica Charlesworth, to help Foresight vision the impact of the predicted obesity epidemic over the next 50 years. I am personally fascinated by the evolution of human physiology and behavior according to our desires, changing self-perceptions, scientific and technological developments – so it was great to have access to Foresights extensive research and insight into our obesity future. Some highlights of our work with foresight can be found on my website and at Jess’ blog.

The findings of the report are already hitting the press, with more attention to ‘passive obesity’ and the ecological perspective of influences fueling this epidemic. Here, an obesogenic environment includes our built environment, energy-density foods, grazing, lower levels of physical activity, stress, genetics, media and food advertising. What’s more we are biologically hard-wired to prepare for famine and store energy in the form of fat as an evolutionary survival mechanism.

Our work considered the evolution of the body in response to an overtly obesogenic environment and some proposals for tackling the problem. Our project aims to be a point of provocation informed by Foresight’s extensive consultation with leading world scientists, experts and other stakeholders in order to stimulate debate in Government as well as the general public.

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