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.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

This Is The Way The World Ends...not with a bang, but repeatedly passed through a ferret

H5N1 is a strain of bird flu. Scientists in Wisconsin and Rotterdam have just proved its future transmissability between mammals by repeatedly infecting a chain of unfortunate ferrets, and the virus has evolved along the way, like viruses do. This hellish material now exists in a new strain that is airborne and can pass from mammal to mammal.

This research is of course essential. One of these days a virus is going to make the species jump that was made in the past by Measles (from cows), Scarlet fever (horses), HIV (chimps) ...and will one day become a threat to human health. And we need to know if and how that's going to happen. Hence the research.

But none of them, according to the US National Science Advisory Board for BioSecurity (NSABB) have got anything on this baby. NSABB chair Paul Keim said in November "I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one. I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."

In 1918 and 19, a form of bird flu killed 100 million people...with a death rate of 2%...that is, for every 100 people who were infected, 2 died. This one, apparently, comes in at 60%.

Sixty. Six Nothing. So...do the wee bit of math...with the same spread as last time, that's three billion people...now factor in an increased human population and air travel...and...

AAAAAAGGGGHHHHH! Stop breathing! Everybody! Immediately!

The reason this has been in the news in the last couple of days is that the NSABB has asked Science and Nature to redact...censor...the publication of these results. They think that we're going to get some fundamentalists buying themselves some chickens and some ferrets and start making this stuff in a garage somewhere. There is a lot more horror from the scientific community about the censorship than there is about the apocalyptic potential of terrorists getting hold of this stuff. Research and prophylaxis will be hampered, they say, unless the the flow of information gets everywhere it needs to get.

And making a weaponised version of this stuff is going to be TOUGH...you can't just pop it in the post. It was a long time ago that the idea of how to make an atom bomb occurred to Leo Szillard. And no one's put one in a suitcase yet.

(He was crossing a road in London in 1933. He blanked out when he put one foot on the road...and when he found himself standing on the other side of Southampton Row, he knew that it would work. But it took a lot of time and money to turn his epiphany into a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima...after which he reinvented himself as a biologist and sci-fi novelist.)

Besides, and this is the real point, something is going to get us one day. Bound to. Nature works like that. Viruses evolve very very fast...and they're always looking for new places to live. HIV doesn't want to kill people...you don't want to blow your new house up...but it takes a while to adjust to each other. We'll be naturally immune in a thousand years or so...and we'll both be happy. In the meantime, however...

Remember Jared Diamond's "Guns Germs and Steel"? It was Measles that conquered America. John Wayne only had a bit part. The Europeans had immunity. And the Native Americans didn't...the rest was just mopping up.
And one day sooner or later evolution of some kind or other, cosmic, climactic or biological is going to give us a right good kicking. Asteroids, climate change, viruses are all waiting in the queue for the apocalypse.

(This is all ending up in the play I'm going to write, by the way. It's a science fiction play, and no good science fiction can miss the trick of wiping out humanity some way or other.)

I think I've just found the way it's going to be. But it won't be terrorists who do it. Nah. Who needs blokes with beards and fixed opinions on homosexuality? As Mark Honigsbaum wrote in yesterday's Guardian, when it comes to terror, nature is the man for the job.


Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at 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.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


This is an illustration of the Drake Equation, which is a mathematical model that has been used since the 1960s (when CETI was set up) to calculate the number of intelligent life forms "out there" who might have something they wanted to say to us. Even a brief hello...or maybe something in exchange for the transmissions of the X Factor we're currently beaming into eternity. Like a death ray if there's any justice.

The first three numbers, entirely unfeasibly at the time of its first formulation, are creeping up and up and up. As measured by gravitational wobbling and periodic dimming of stars, the number of planets found is now in the hundreds, and those within the "ecoshell" as pushing half a dozen...probably. Even the fourth number, given all the water and vulcanicity which seems to be around in our solar system, is at least theoretically not zero...probably.

So what's keeping them? When will ET do his duty by us? And save us from ourselves?

Well, the more I read in the converging disciplines of developmental biology, chemistry, paleontology, climatology...and genomics, the bigger the conceptual gap between fl and fi, the fourth and fifth terms of the equation, seems to be. And the more apparent it is that we have to look to ourselves a bit sharpish for salvation.

Andrew Knoll, in his magnificent, every five pages mind-boggling ""Life on a Young Planet" , summarises it like this: "While the story of evolution undoubtedly includes human beings, it is not about us...life's history is a gripping saga of cyanobacterial survival, a cautionary tale of trilobitic fall, or the inspirational story of yeasts finding sustenance in rotting fruit...Whatever the merits of viewing earth as our world, we could not persist without the bacteria and algae, as well as the plants and animals"

The number of things that had to go right, and keep going right, for life not only to exist but for life to exist with the right chemistry for getting on for 4 billion years, with water having arrived here at just the right time, for the temperature to have ranged so narrowly, for the right abundance of oxygen and calcium to coincide for the formation of skeletons (a prerequisite for diversity of form and function), leaves a yawning, maybe more or less unbridgeable gap between there being life and there being complex, multi-cellular life...leave alone all the stuff that's happened since the Cambrian explosion gave rise to plants and animals...including mass extinctions and climate change that has fortuitously coincided with mutations in wheat grass to let us discover agriculture which is the sine qua non...etc etc etc...and I didn't even get to beating Hitler, which was helpful

Man made global warming is the least of it. Take a look at this graphic.

The present day is at the right hand end. As you can see, it's pretty damn cold at the minute...earth has usually been much, much hotter than it is now. It is, nicely for us, a bit parky.

And before Nigel Lawson gets all excited and says "Well there we are then...fire up my Hummer immediately", just because climate change is natural doesn't mean it's good for us. Our civilisation has emerged in a period of warming at the tail end of a glaciation period (whose end we are accelerating) and the climate owes us diddly squat.

God may be dead, but his shadow falls over us whenever we imagine that we are "meant" to be here. Meant by whom? Ourselves, of course, is the only possible answer to that question, which means that, as as ever, we are, like all forms of life ever, on a cusp between altruism and individuality as a survival strategy. We have to decide who "we" are.

The language of evolution has been hijacked ever since Darwin to justify the rich in doing whatever they feel like doing and paying no tax in the meantime. Progress and natural selection have been culturally identified with psychopathic behaviour in the marketplace and on the battlefield. Just like Divine Providence once upon a time.

The fact, however, is that the tension between cooperation and competition as alternatives WITHIN taxonomic groups is as universal as DNA itself...more so. I am finding it possible now to conceive of all our political conflicts within this view of life, and to read in the graph of climate change a political imperative to identify the values that will alone protect us from the next set of depredations of the rich, for which, honest to God, the latest unequal division of economic pain is only a minor rehearsal. If people like Murdoch are still in charge when the whip comes down, then the survivors are not going to be nice liberal folk like you and me...they're going to be unpleasant beyond the dreams of Al Quaida. There's an unnatural selection coming, and we really don't want those people making the rules.

I observe too, tangentially, that just as it was possible for Dante Alighieri to write a poem that encompassed the universe in 1309, for the first time since, that holistic view is possible again. And it's called human science. As above so below...uncertainty at every scale - convergence and homogony and happenstantial selection are everywhere you look. It is breathtaking and beautiful to be alive right now.

Science awaits its Dante. And climate change its Karl Marx. I don't imagine that's a job description I could fill...I'm just writing an undivine comedy about genetically engineered librarians. But to finish my blogs before the hols, I did want to attempt a brief panegyric.

We live on rare earth
At exactly the right time
We should act like it.

There. Stick that Boson up your accelerator and detect it.

Happy Holidays.
Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at 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.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

11 Small Songs About Everything


At the heart of
Lived and illusory experience
Is the feeling that there’s somebody watching

That we’re apart from the things we are a part of
That there are always two of each of us.


Our ancestors became objects of worship
So very early on,
Because it is unsettling that the dead
Those who are absent from the world
Stay present in our minds

I suspect that our being incomplete and double,
Has, Ab-originally speaking.
Something to do with feeling
that if, after we’re dead
We exist - Why not now?


The future tense
The ability to imagine consequences
To make plans, have ideas, write them down
And imagine alternative future versions of ourselves
(if we sow or eat the harvest)
Is a subset of this initial, unnerving intuition
And finding death when we discovered life

There are two of me in the future depending
on me right now


In compensation for the experience
of memory and anticipation,
We evolved or we invented
(it hardly matters which)
Our sense of self, a continuous being
With a name
Who was, and is now, and ever shall be.

Perhaps that’s what happened when
Eve bit the apple.
Perhaps that was the Fall


Our conversations with God
Have always been ways to talk
About the future with ourselves.

(The future briefly replaced God, even,
As an object of hope and worship
And as a repository for justification
But has been found to be equally untenable.)


While atheists are fond of saying,
(Leaning forward with a pipe and a pint)
"God has proved himself
An unnecessary hypothesis,"
Some of us, even atheists
Are not comfortable
With the future going the same way.

To live without God and Hope too
Makes us mean and instrumental
Narrow and unpleasant to be with


Reality isn’t good for us
But then
We’ve always known that

We’re still looking for something, anything, in reality
To console us for dying

In the molecules of our sameness
Of memory and inheritance,
Can we find in genomic longevity
A substitute for immortality?
In molecular homogony, for belonging?
Can we find in the changes and contingencies
Of amino acids our identity?
And ways to be happy about what happens next?
Can we pray to the way things really are?
Can we learn
How not to need God
And how not to be him as well?


There is the comfort
That our questions now
Across the wastes of time and political economy
Are the same ones we’ve been asking
Since we got ourselves kicked out of the garden.

Our answers too are all the same
Negotiations of the same dualities
Lostnessess and wishes,
And all of these have been useful.

We’ve made beauty from them
As well as thefts and murders.


Our deeper realities than the real
Called Brahma and quanta and the like
Are better means than they are ends.

Lovely things have been done with them
Our condemned and privileged, evolved or invented
loneliness and love

And terrible, terrible things.


We are adapted to watch ourselves experiencing
The unlikeliness of being real.

Like all adaptations to reality
The only end is failure
while reality goes on.


The measure of everything is everything
The rest is songs and silence.

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at 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.