Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Start From Anywhere or All Roads Lead to Genome.

I haven't posted for a week or so...partly because last week I was rehearsing and then performing my Men and Monkeys event...which went well, I think. But I'm not sure how much it tells me about what to do next. As witness my resorting to the appalling title of this post.

It's just that the thing about this subject matter is that the point of entry can be anywhere...you will eventually get around to everything no matter where you start...so where do you start?

Does that make sense?

Take the fact that the UK Police between them now have a DNA database, potentially...of 5 million people...and that the standard DNA mouth swabs that get taken when you get arrested could...with the merest tweak to Data Protection Law...get tested for a mitochondrial enzyme called Monoamine Oxidase A (MAOA)...whose absence (or low-activity) in the cytoplasm is a fairly good predictor for random acts of violence...especially when the possessor has himself (usually him) taken a few beatings down the years...

The information is already there...so why not test for it...it's not that we'd automatically lock people up...so what harm is there in KNOWING...?

Mairi Levitt from Lancaster University is visiting the forum just now...this is her area...and I think I've persuaded her to come and talk about it next time we convene our Traverse Bar discussion group...watch this space...

In the meantime...I'm spoiled for choice for other stuff to write about...and I honestly think I just want to throw it all up in the air in a room with a bunch of actors and say "You Pick One!"

Because the neat thing about everything being connected to everything else is that it doesn't matter where you start...in the end you'll cover all the bases...

(That's a nucleotide joke)

You might start with the 20th Century's leading Eureka! moment... Jim Watson ...possibly in his bath...in January 1953...cutting out bits of cardboard representing said nucleotides and noticing how the shapes of Gs and Ts and Cs and As coincide in an alluringly simple and repeating fashion ...then taking his new jigsaw to show his pal Francis Crick down in the Cavendish...who saw how the mapping worked really well if you ran the chains of bases in opposite directions...

and hey presto...bingo...whatever...they'd discovered a blueprint, invented an icon, envisaged a machine, an industry, an understanding...every metaphor all at once in a flash of structural and functional and conceptual perfection...and they ran downstairs to the Eagle to get pissed...and a very nice pub it is too.

You could start from there. You'd end up with juvenile delinquents' mitochondria eventually. But should us non scientists start at all is the question I'm suddenly confronted with.

Check this:


It's a link to somewhere just 40 drunken seconds down the road from the Eagle. It's a new scheme being run from The Faraday Institute and St Edmund's College Cambridge.

"The aim of the interdisciplinary Programme is to investigate contemporary non-scientific uses and abuses of biological thought (beneficial, benign or negative) in the domains of philosophy, the social sciences, the media, religion and politics. Collaborative projects between those engaged in the biological sciences and investigators from other disciplines are particularly welcomed"

There's an essay competition and grant funding available...and as a serial abuser of biological thought myself, I must say it sounds most interesting. I might offer myself as a test subject.

Of course, even a playwright might have to point out that scientists themselves have been known for the odd abuses of science ... but maybe that's an essay topic.

Anyway, next time...Does DNA "know" how to make bodies the same way I "know" my pin number...or the way that I "know" that the quality of mercy is not strained...or neither of the above...answer me that one, if you can!

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.


  1. It's a good idea to learn needlepoint prior to being asked to sew a star on your jumper or to put it another way, Thinking you see a rabbit is far cry from Knowing you are looking at Joseph Jastrow and his duck.

  2. http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/JastrowDuck.htm