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, 29 March 2012

A Thought Provoking Intrusion

Blog by Chris Berry - Genomics Forum Genomics Forum Press and Communications Officer

It was standing room only at Pulp Fiction – Edinburgh’s leading genre-fiction bookshop – last week, for the launch of Intrusion – the latest book from leading science fiction author, and Genomics Forum Writer in Residence, Ken MacLeod

Intrusion explores a dystopian UK of the near future, where repression comes not from dictatorship, but rather the societal pressure to embrace the “common-sense” benefits resulting from scientific progress.  This is a society where the trade in second-hand books has collapsed, amid fear of the impact from fourth-hand tobacco smoke leaching from their pages; where the trees that line London’s streets are torn down to be replaced with superior, genetically optimal, specimens; and crucially, it is a place were expectant mothers are “encouraged” to take a pill that ensures their offspring will be free from genetic disease and abnormality.

Having read from the opening chapter of Intrusion – which skilfully echoes Orwell’s 1984, by hinting at the social constraints impacting even the mundane elements of the main characters’ lives – Ken MacLeod discussed his book with Scotland on Sunday’s Literary Editor, Stuart Kelly

During a fascinating and insightful interview, Ken indicated that his time spent as Writer in Residence with the Genomics Forum had underpinned his exploration of the interaction between society and ongoing developments in the life sciences.  This in turn has fed into his development of themes that flow through Intrusion: significantly, if genetic engineering where to become so cheap and safe so as to produce a simple, all-encompassing “fix” for genetic diseases, would denying this to your children be comparable to denying them vaccinations today?

Discussions between Ken and the audience – which later spilled over to the pub adjacent to the venue – raised further key issues, such as: would fixing genetic diseases make for a homogeneous, non-evolving human race; and what are the moral dilemmas of considering the rights of individuals ahead of the future benefits science might bring to society.

Amongst the many questions raised and debated during the launch of Intrusion, one thing is clear;  Ken MacLeod’s exploration of how science might shape the future of society has resulted in a highly engaging and thought-provoking read.

Intrusion is published in the UK by Orbit, and is available in hardback from leading booksellers.

Ken MacLeod was Writer in Residence with the Genomics Forum from 2009-10, and remains affiliated with the Forum.

Visit the Genomics Forum’s flickr page to view photographs from the Forum Social Session - Ken MacLeod's book launch.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Laboratory Conditions

Well...the last act of my residency (per se) is on Thursday Night at the Trav...and, having just played some blues harmonica loud enough to disturb some scholars...sorry...I can safely say that "Talent Night in the Fly Room" isn't what I expected it would be when we started rehearsal.

We started last Monday with roughly ninety pages of material...three hours worth or so...mostly quotations from the most important sources I've been looking at, all the way from TH Morgan to Erwin Schrodinger...to Max Delbruk...and a couple of songs and sketches, sure.

But under laboratory conditions text is tested to destruction...the reality test of having actors in the room with the ideas, and the anticipation of an audience being there alters the shape and feel of the work, and forces it towards reality...or at least, into the version of reality that we can share, we're down to what I hope is a tight little, right little show.

Something like the laboratory process of rehearsal is going to be the thrust of a more academic presentation I'll make at the Genomics Conference in London at the British Library in April: to wit, have I learned anything about the way the specifically dramatic arts...(as opposed to music or poetry) relate to scientific ideas and processes?

Well, maybe. In the meantime, the show is the thing. And here is the lyric to a little tango number I'll be doing:

If you want spider silk from goats
You tweak the genome
If you want diesel fuel from oats
Just use the genome
If you’re feeling all alone
There’s no one we can’t clone
From any chromosome
Just ask the genome.

We make brain cells from your armpit
And the genome
If you’re sick we’ll make you fit
We’ll use the genome
We’ll insert those nano-bots
And end up which god knows what
Don’t put up with what you’ve got
Call in the genome

Nothing comes from nothing
Not even genomes
All history is written
In our genomes
Material machines
Tell you what existence means
All your fears and all your dreams
Are in your genome

Miracles are every day
Just provided you can pay
Though the price might be obscene
Depending on your genes

All the birds and all the bees
Have all got genomes
Every virulent disease
Has got a genome
We’ve all got the same ancestor
Who was a such a wise investor
In the chemical congestor
Of the genome

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Talent Night in the Fly Room - March 29th Traverse Theatre

Here's a song we're working on this afternoon...all together now:

Don’t you think it’s strange?

We are…

Islands of order
In oceans of entropy

A concentrate of space time
That isn’t very likely

Molecular arrangements
Evolving sporadically

And Biased chains
Of crystaline identity

Bacterial colonies
Of dubious propinquity

And a lousy pack of bastards
Of our very own paternity

Don’t you think it’s strange
To be alive?

When we are…

(repeat until the end of time)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Saying It Out Loud

I've been quiet on the blog front of late...partly being away, but mainly because this has been a record of stuff I've been reading and I've started writing now. In fact, next week I go into rehearsals for Talent Night at The Fly Room...a one off genomic revue we're doing at the Traverse on Thursday March 29th.

The idea is to road test some ideas...see what the response to the material I'm generating is...first by the actors, then an audience. It's essential R and D for the play I'm writing, really.

I'm breaking my blog silence though, because I've been led to read something which I will be using in the script for Talent Night, but which illustrates perhaps my small contribution to the sociological arts embodied by the Genomics Forum.It's what I call the Lasagne test and involves, once again, reading aloud.

Say there is an upcoming publication by researchers from Oxford and New York Universities on a human bio-engineering response to climate change. In the test, the bright young male sociologist takes his wife or girlfriend to a nice Italian restaurant. (I say male because only a male could have had the following idea).

He then reads this aloud to his girlfriend over the pasta course:

"Human ecological footprints are partly correlated with our size. We need a certain amount of food and nutrients to maintain each kilogram of body mass. This means that, other things being equal, the larger one is, the more food and energy one requires. While genetic modifications to control height are likely to be quite complex and beyond our current capacities, it nevertheless seems possible now to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select shorter children...what do you think, honey?"

If at this point, if he is picking lasagne out of his hair, which I confidently predict he will be, then it's probably best not to publish.

(Interestingly, the making the population smaller option was also explored in 1962 by Mr Fantastic when he shrank the occupants of Planet X to save them from an asteroid in Fantastic Four 7 - only here the sociological narrative was more thought through.)

Read things aloud, folks...it's a great way to test stuff. See you at the Traverse on March 29th.

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.