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.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

What do genes do right?

Before I splurge further into the joys of Sean Carrol’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”…a swift update on ideas for up coming events

I had a mutually enthusing meeting this morning with Jennifer Williams, who is the Traverse’s point person for this project, and we were exploring a number of possibilities for public events …including setting up a monthly series of public/invited “Genome Encounters” that I’ll host…maybe in the Trav Bar…maybe starting at the end of June.

We also talked over plans for events in the autumn…and indeed the Spring of next year…

Watch this space for the stuff of life…


There’s a poster up in the office the Genomics Forum have so kindly given me in which to type this gibberish….produced by the US Department of Energy (I don’t know why) that exemplifies the “classical” view of genetics…

This is it here: http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/posters/chromosome/chooser.shtml

It’s a chart of nicely coloured representations of 22 human chromosomes

(and the X and the Y chromosomes…the X we’ve all got one of…girls have two- and us boys have got the Y chromosome instead, dangling off the end of the chart rather unimpressively as it happens.)

Anyway, these stripey slugs of information are accompanied by wodges of text…and they’re mostly a list of the genes that activate or code to proteins (or fail to code) for stuff that goes WRONG…from breast cancer to red hair…that is the primary interest in genes as expressed by this poster is in stuff which we might be able to find a cure for…

(Is there a “career in the theatre” gene we can surgically remove from the unfortunate children of actors and such folk?)

What Sean Carroll and his chums do is start from what the whole thing DOES RIGHT as a constituent of an eco-system…in building embryos of chickens and butterflies as well as actors…

They suggest that we imaginatively leap to a genome’s eye view of making eyes…for example…

Just on eyes for a minute, one cool wee thing I learned from this book is that if you take some Hox Genes – the tool kit, Carroll calls them - from a mouse embryo that make eyes in a mouse…and inject them into a fly embryo (in the wrong place…the thorax, say) …you get an eye being expressed…but you get a FLY eye…which is as unlike a mammal eye in structure as you can imagine.

I don’t really know what that means yet…but it blows my tiny mind…

Thursday, 26 May 2011

What I’m Doing 2

While I’m reading and researching for these possible events... these “Encounters with the Genome” as it were…and thrashing out what’s the best way to present and market such things…and thinking about the play, I’ll also be posting on what I’m finding out about as I go.

And although right now I’m swimming about in all this like a stray protein in a Petrie dish, there are a couple of things I hope to be able to do when I can occasionally attach myself to whatever it is stray proteins might attach themselves to.

For one thing, sometime soon I’ll be inviting submission to a website called “The Human Genre Project”…a snazzy online collection of poems and stories and jokes inspired and collected on a neat wee cartoon of the 23 chromosomes shared by you and me. Check it out at www.humangenreproject.com

Another thing I can do is recommend reading…if I come across something I find useful and/or exciting, I can say why and pass it on.

One I can immediately and whole heartedly recommend is Sean Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, its title deriving, as I’m sure you recognize, from Darwin’s uncharacteristic flight of prosody at the tail end of “Origin of Species”.

What Carroll does is elegantly and rather movingly to demonstrate the key shift in perspective between “classical” genetics and “genomics” when it comes to thinking about animal evolution…

(No, I wasn’t aware there was one either…not till last week anyway)

That is, to stop thinking quite so much about what goes wrong with bodies and where to find the “gene for it”…the smoking gun…

And to use the holistic viewpoint of the whole genome to look at the structures of what goes so miraculously, improbably RIGHT…

Most of the time.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

What I’m Doing Here

I’m planning to write a play for the Traverse called “The Fly Room” - about power, property and knowledge - at the end of all this, but in the meantime I’m going to be putting together what I hope will be a series of provocative public events that share and invite comment on the thinking I’m putting into it.

Me and some actors will be presenting and interrogating key texts and events from the making of the modern world of genomics…not simply as a subset of techniques of biological and medical enquiry and innovation…but as a way of understanding “life”…whatever that turns out to mean.

These are found texts…to be culled and winnowed…and debated between...I’ve already got a pile of books and pdfs to read. Over the next few weeks I’ll be letting you know what I’m reading and a bit of what I’m thinking.

The first of these events is hopefully going to be towards the end of June…a kind of trial balloon we’re going to send up…maybe in the Traverse Bar…?

(hint to Traverse)

I’m going to start out with a bit of an old classic…The Scopes Monkey Trial…Tennessee 1925…that first big clash of world views…base camp for America’s culture wars on evolution in education…the clash of titans (Bryan and Darrow) memorably mis-represented in the hit play and movie “Inherit the Wind”…and revived by Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic not long since

(See how I’m deftly marrying our worlds together)

Plus, of course…the Dover School Board in Pennsylvania going through exactly the same stuff on Intelligent Design (or Creationism Lite) much more recently...(2004)

Creationism...in some disguise or other... as maybe coming to a Foundation School near you…Michael Gove’s stipulations not-withstanding. The debate about evolution in education in the States is very fast moving…they keep changing the terms and I'll be trying to get current on all that too...

Meanwhile if there’s anybody out there…I’m looking for suggestions…I’m looking for folk to talk to…

I’m here now. So you know where to find me.


Thursday, 19 May 2011

"A playwright? Be serious!"

The other reaction I’m getting is from the other pole of this sphere…from the scientific types with blue sparks emerging from their frontal lobes (which includes my own brother, actually) looking at me with deep scepticism…a playwright?...engaging with genomics?

That’s nice, they say…dismissing the idea as a bit of cross-cultural-public- engagement- blah blah blah-box ticking.

(They’re far too nice to SAY that, of course.)

And they go back to their work. Back to “reality”.

Hang on…I say…(or I’m saying now)…I’m here to learn things.  I’m here, first and foremost to read and to listen…

And anyway, I don’t think you can divorce the personal politics of moral values, from scientific discourse…you can’t put moral questions and scientific questions into discreet monadic boxes…any more than who owns the copyright on my chromosomes is none of my business.

I don’t think that scientific work can ever be divorced from the society it happens in, any more than play writing can.  I think a public understanding of science is more than a tokenistic shibboleth for getting the funding application approved…I think it’s an imperative.

Policy on matters scientific isn’t any less democratically accountable because science is hard for non-scientists to understand.

Gawd…I work in the arts, and if that’s true for us, it’s true for you.

Even more importantly, I don’t think we can arrive at any coherent moral arguments about anything unless we take account of the best thinking available about how things really are.

Values and reality cannot be allowed to remain opposed as though they were mutually exclusive. We can’t leave values to the fundamentalists.  If for no other reason than because that would leave “reality” to the amorality of the global marketplace.

I won’t have it.  Either way.

So you’re stuck with me.  Here now.  Bothering you.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

" "What Forum?" "Genomics What?" "

 by Peter Arnott, Resident Playwright – ESRC Genomics Forum and Traverse Theatre

I've got a residency at the Genomics Forum I tell people.

And the ones who nod wisely and avoid saying "Eh?" are just pretending they have any idea what that means. (I should know.  I was bluffing when I got the gig.)

"Genomics Forum" - people do keep asking me what that is.  They're mostly puzzled about the genomics bit.  I'm getting a bit of a handle on that, maybe.  It's the Forum bit I'm still wondering about.

Anyway I'll start with the first bit:

Genomics - this is:

EITHER a catch all term for techniques and research developed in the life sciences since the specific event of the sequencing of the human genome.

OR a bold new all inclusive paradigm for the understanding of absolutely everything...honest!

Hum...my patchy recollection of Thomas Kuhn suggests to me that a paradigm shift cannot be willed.  It happens or it doesn't. Maybe it has happened, or IS happening...I hope to find out.

What does seem to be rock solid already in the papers I've been reading is that "old style" Genetics is currently being rather huffily and contemptuously dismissed.

(Genes code to proteins, proteins to body parts and functions...Hah!)

That's now known as Astrology in the biz, apparently.

The most important thing we seemed to have learned since 2000 - (I say "we" , I mean "they") - is that we know a lot less than we thought in terms of one to one functionality between genotype and phenotype - or a lot less than we thought we were going to know by now.

Getting the whole genome was supposed to have been getting an easy-to-read shopping list of miracles and nightmares...It hasn't turned out that way.  This is philosophically reassuring and (maybe) politically and commercially disastrous.

Jesus! All that money!  Where's my leukaemia cure already? -

(I do stand open to correction on all this by the way.)

The only other thing I know is that as far as the general public is concerned, it's all gone very quiet...since Dolly the Sheep and Venter the Press Conference...nothing...zip...

So...the second half of the phrase: Forum?  To which all I can offer so far is a bad rhyme.

For whom?

Monday, 9 May 2011

When the Edinburgh International Science Festival and Gengage met each other...

Blog by Alicia Lopez Cuesta - ESRC Genomics Forum Intern

You’re probably familiar with the Edinburgh International Science Festival but not with Gengage…? It is time to remedy that!  Gengage, also known as The Scottish Healthcare Genetics Public Engagement Network, exists in symbiosis with the ESRC Genomics Forum. Gengage has the challenging mission of connecting people who are working to enhance public engagement with healthcare genetics in Scotland.

As part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Gengage held a successful event on Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) on the 20th of April, titled “From Healthy Embryos To Designer Babies: How Far Is Too Far?”.