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.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Thursday 27th October 4pm at the Traverse Bar - some things beginning with M we might talk about.

Just a few things to think about for our next wee chat. First, a TED talk on personalised medicine...the genome as Machine...Medicine...Material...all the Ms...

And here's a nice blog I've found run by biologists in Australia


And last a nice chat given in Edinburgh last year on the genome as Memory.

As for the genome as "Molecule"...as Thing in Itself...here's something on evolution and the nature of truth from pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty which I'm trying to get my head around:

"To see the employment of words as the use of tools to to deal with the environment rather than as an attempt to represent the intrinsic nature of that environment is to repudiate the question of whether human minds are in touch with reality. No organism is ever more or less in touch with reality...to rid our thinking of the vestiges of Cartesianism, to become fully Darwinian in our thinking, we need to stop thinking of words as representations and to start thinking of them as nodes in the causal network which binds the organism together with its environment"

My contention on Thursday, ladies and gentlemen, is that what he means is that everyone needs to start thinking like playwrights. Language as ACTION!!!!

See you then.

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.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Paddling Upstream at the Genomics Forum

Traverse Bar...4pm ...Thursday 27th October!

Back in April when I started this blog, I seem to remember claiming I had a handle on the Genomics...on the science...but was a bit less clear on what the Forum itself was about. The first part of the sentence wasn't true, as it happens...I had a lot more very enjoyable reading and questioning to do...I think I'm making progress...but I want to take this morning to think aloud a bit about the Forum itself.

And I'm about to make another reckless claim or six.

The Forum is made up of social scientists...not biological scientists. Which means that society...ie you people...is the problem under consideration.

The political impetus behind the establishment of the Forum had a headline rationale, and a political imperative that were parallel but not identical. The headline impetus for its establishment was the enormous technical, commercial, philosophical and social potential of the sequencing of the "human genome". It would be interesting, it was felt, to study how "society" might engage with the new science as it unfolded in terms of information, products and possibilities, ideas and innovations.

The narrower political interest...the problem to be solved or at least addressed...derived from the public relations disaster of GM Crops in the UK and the EU in the last decade. It was felt that anti-GM activists of various ideological orientations had persuaded the "public" to be afraid...Frankenstien Foods...all that. And that this artificially engendered anxiety was capable of "getting in the way" of progress. This is where the idea of "Upstream Engagement" came from. The idea being that if you SLOWLY and CAREFULLY explain to people why they should be happy a bit earlier on, then they will be happy. If the little darlings feel involved...they may even give their positive consent. Or at least be less swayed by Luddite Propaganda.

"Upstream Engagement" would involve people in the issues in a "softer" way...more nuanced...through hiring the likes of me, for example...the Forum would create audiences...and better informed, more responsible citizens for future consultation.

In the Metaphor is the Meaning. The river's still gonna go where it's gonna go. But it's easier if the flotsam LIKES it...that's possibly a bit unkind. And it makes me and writing plays and doing public events and such a sort of tributary, I suppose.

It was all very New Labour...democracy as massage....but things are changing here as well as in the wider world, not least because public conflicts on the GM scale have been elided...but more because of the change of government, leave alone of the economy. So, the Forum won't exist in its current form quite soon. There are different political priorities. A refocusing and a reforming is well underway...resumes are flying around.

But the Genie of the Genome is out of the bottle. The impact of the new technology and new knowledge, as I can testify from my own research has indeed been, and is going to be, enormous and complex. But the mood music, even in genomics, is fatalistic more than messianic these days. We have a "public" who feel helpless to influence anything, being swatted around the head by the hidden hand of the market, and we have little belief that any other hand will be guiding research and development of anything at all, let alone of something with so much potential power. Protest against this and other powers, too, is visceral and anguished rather than articulate and focused. We occupy Wall Street and Dale Farm without any expectation of doing any more than spreading a bit of discomfort and embarrassment before we die...

And that is the greater and un-massageable reason why the Luddites won last time...on GM Foods in the UK and Europe...and why for all the talk of Upstream Engagement, the last thing that the commercial and scientific powers (or those who pay their wages) want now, or will tolerate in future, is "public engagement" in any more than a cosmetic sense. (As a distraction for us and a necessary cost for them.) This is not a chat about reason anymore, it's a fight about fear...and the gloves are coming off.

The current climate does not and will not admit of any of "engagement" for very much longer. The "debate" is not really a debate between "progress" and "dignity"...in the field of genetic medicine, for example. It's a tension between imperatives, and between instincts, and, consisting of any more than shouting and weeping, actual constructive democratic oversight of power is a luxury we can no longer afford.

(Democracy is becoming such a problem...don't these noisy, feckless people in Greece understand anything about banking?)

The Forum exists as a place for research and debate...for argument, for reasonable conversations. Reasonable conversations, I think, are history. As the climate changes and the oil runs out, we will look back with helpless nostalgia to a time when we thought that destiny was maybe democratic...and that the future was in our hands.

Which brings me to my wild claim, if those weren't wild enough. We are not afraid because we have been PERSUADED to be afraid. We ARE afraid. We are afraid of the motivation and competence of those in charge. We do not think they are honest. In turn, they think we're stupid and untrustworthy. They think we're "in the way."

They're right about that. Frightened people are not rational. But we're right too. Science is a social practice...progress IS a metaphor. There is still a role for epistemology as we man the barricades.

And metaphors are stories we tell about things to make us feel better. Even if we're scientists. And personally, "in the way" is where I feel comfortable. Metaphorically, anyway.

And THAT is what the play is going to be about! And what the second half of my residency is going to be rehearsing and refining. The conversation continues next Thursday at Four pm in the Traverse Bar.

For a more reasonable (but enjoyably sceptical) take on "Upstream Engagement" from Joyce Tait, one of the Forum's founding dignitaries, see below.


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.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The RNA Tie Pin Club

I'm reading James Watson's 2003 Book "DNA The Secret of Life" with which Katherine Mendlesohn at the Traverse was good enough to gift me before my showing there the other week, and lots of responses to it, and to its style, occur to me. I've just finished the first chapters on the "heroic" (my word) era...which are a reminder of not only the physical and chemical questions that Crick and Watson, Franklin and Wilkins were asking, but of the physical processes of research itself...of the distinction between the Gene/genome as "model" and as "molecule"...of the thing in itself...and what you need to do to it before it gives up its "secrets".

This is the original paper they wrote in "Nature" as published in April 1953. The first thing that strikes you, of course, is how short it is, how pithy for such an earth shaping discovery.

Now, we're used to a mythology of instantly shifting paradigms...and assume that after April 1953, no one ever thought of life the same way again...just as we also tend to assume that no one thought of life the same way again after November 1859 and the Origin of Species.

But only a moment's reflection is needed to realize that this is bollocks - that's Hollywood. That's not how things really happen. The full implications of neither event have nothing like fully really permeated our culture. (The very moment I use a phrase like "our culture" more questions get begged than answered.)

Truth is that NOBODY got it...or almost nobody....not for a while. What needed to happen even in the world of science was that this theoretical model for inheritance had to be physically demonstrated and explained...which meant that a pathway had to be found from the splitting and copying of the DNA molecule on the chromosomes inside the nucleus to the manufacture of proteins by amino acids in the ribosomes of the cell... (in the "other" bit of the cell, the cytoplasm) ...all this had to be tested for, confirmed and explained.

Ain't no DNA in ribosomes...what is there, however, is RNA, a similar molecule, now thought to be the senior synthesising molecule...

(RNA WORLD was Crick's idea - the idea, now widely accepted, that RNA made life first and that DNA evolved from it)

...RNA, which, in the meantime had to be shown somehow to transcribe and carry the "information" from the DNA to the amino acids which make the proteins which make the bodies...

RNA being necessary to life in the distant past and still necessary now demonstrates, incidentally, that evolution has thrown the cellular system together with the same disregard for "design principles" as our bigger more familiar "bodies" - which are obviously jerry-built botch jobs... the more that the cell is understood the more it is clear that it too is an accumulation of improvisations on a theme of adaptation.

Took till about 1966 to fix the process in more than a handful of minds as being the way things actually were.

In the meantime, in 1954, James Watson and George Gamow (one the great characters of 20th century science...and, like Crick, a refugee from nuclear physics to biology post Hiroshima) formed the RNA Tie Pin Club...assigning each member one of the twenty amino acid acronyms...and a tie -pin...marking their mission to think about how all this might work.

The club numbered Crick and Watson and Gamow as members, of course...and other figures who became legendary in Molecular Biology, like Sydney Brenner...but also Richard Feynman and Edward Teller...who were, of course, physicists.

There was plenty of room in this very tiny, very elite club for these luminaries...and both the elitism and the smallness of the group are redolent of the way things actually happen in science.

It was just the two of them at the very beginning, in the Cavendish Laboratory in January 1953...gazing with a wild surmise... then Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin...who were two of the only other people on earth fully qualified to see what this "model" of replication meant...then there were the twenty members of the RNA club...

And then there was DNA recombination in 1973...and the first regulatory and commercial implications till there was commercial genetic engineering by the 90s...then the sequencing of the genomes of humans and e-Coli and potatoes etc etc etc

And now the club, in a way, is a much more open, much more amorphous gathering of social scientists and politicians and even playwrights trying to work out what it all means...asking ourselves are we using our specialisms to interrogate the meaning of genomics...or is genomics, rather more disturbingly, that is interrogating us.

Is it possible for any of us to go on with any of our ethical and moral enterprises without being given pause by the questions asked of us by "This View of Life"?

And most of us, still, when it comes to an overview of the science and its development, are next door to clueless...while the number of people with a comprehensive, nuanced overview of the Science of Genomics, and of its rampantly expanding technology -leave alone of its implications as process and story, as well as information...is still a pretty tight little group. Perhaps there is no one who can see the whole thing anymore, so intense is the field's own specialization.

Most of Watson's 2003 book, though, seems to be about the human story of the science - not just ideas, but how those ideas were sweated for, negotiated and sold. I'm looking forward to reading his take on the politics...and boy were there politics...of the genetic industry as it developed in the 70s...and culminated with the evangel according to Bill, Craig and Tony in the White House in the year 2000 ...just before Bin Laden and the banks between them cancelled the future.

Another day, another day...

In any case, here is the man himself, maybe still wearing his tie pin, maybe a candidate for the maybe mythical role I describe, telling his own story in his own scurrilous style, at the opening of Ted Talks in 2005.

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.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Adam's Tummy Button

Entirely contradicting what I said in my last entry that I'd be talking about this time, I'm going to put a bit of a footnote to my performance last week at the Traverse, where we were exploring the good old God vs Darwin chestnut once again. First by a bit of back reference to my previous residency at the National Library of Scotland and the archive of Darwin's publisher John Murray.

I also apologise to anyone trying to read this about how strange it looks...the images are straining "Blogger" technology...which is oddly apposite.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

'Lighting up '

by Mairi Levitt  - Genomics Forum Bright Ideas Fellow
Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University, www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/faculty/profiles/Mairi-Levitt

It is week 4 of my bright ideas fellowship and the light bulb on top of my head has lit up a few times already!  I am getting used to a blank diary that I can fill with reading, thinking, coffee drinking and discussions.  In fact today I managed to be late for the only meeting I had not arranged myself. The Forum's team got together and I was ensconced in the university library law section reading about automatons in Scots law…well it might have been relevant to behavioural genetics  (‘an external factor not self-induced’, that you could not forsee, that ‘results in a complete alienation of reason’ etc).  But actually it doesn’t seem to be relevant after all since your genetic make-up is internal not external and the research I’m interested in shows correlations with problem behaviours not  ‘a complete loss of self control’.

I share a room with Peter Arnott (playwright and most prolific blogger at the Genomics Forum) and he has not only read one of my journal articles (on genetics and crime) but wants me to come to an open meeting at the Traverse theatre in his Translating the Genome series to discuss it.  Nice to be able to say yes without checking whether it clashes with teaching or other university duties.   I could also spend each and every day in the National Library overdosing on a few of the 14 million items which can be brought to your desk and recommended for the coffee and free newspapers when you need a break. But I only have 5 weeks left after this one so I need to narrow down my interests a bit….why did I say I’d only come for 2 months?!

Mairi will be holding a seminar on ‘Whatever genes one has it is preferable that you are prevented from going around stabbing people’: Genes, environment and responsibility for behaviour at the Genomics Forum on Thursday 3 November, please email forum@genomicsnetwork.ac.uk to register.

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.