Like an old comfortable pair of genes – Gav’s review of August’s SciBar

Dr Catrin Rutland from the University of Nottingham comes to The Vat and Fiddle to talk about Genetics: Fact or Fiction? Where is the boundary between science and science fiction?


Genetics was not officially a science until the late 1970s; prior to then, you would have been a “blood bio-chemist” rather than a geneticist. However, people were talking about it long before then. It was Mendel who first discussed it, moving on to Erasmus, Darwin and Watson-Crick discovering DNA in the 1950s.


The human body has 22,000 genes that all code for different things. Even though we have sequenced them all, we still don’t know what each gene does. However, we do know that the same gene may do something different in a different species. For example, we share 98% of our genes with a chimpanzee (and 74% with a banana) A recent court case in America looked into whether chimps should have “human rights” since they are so similar to us. The case failed and at present, neither chimpanzees nor bananas have human rights.


Mutation – addition, deletion or inversion of bases, can lead to different effects in different genes. For example klinfelta, where a male has an extra chromosome. This tends to bring out the “manliness” in the individual and a majority of sufferers end up in jail.


Alec Jefferies developed DNA fingerprinting. With the technology available, why was there confusion over Luke’s parentage? Surely Darth Vader could have just taken him on Jeremy Kyle. In real life, £100 DNA tests are being taking in India to show which of the 49 classes people belong to prior to marriage.


In the UK you can now spend £149 on a test that will supposedly tell you what diseases you might be susceptible to. But how can it really tell since we don’t know what every gene does? To give some perspective, it cost £1,000 to sequence a full human genome and around £5,000 in man hours to examine all of the genes. There is a cheaper test, coming in at £99 that will tell you what percentage Viking you are.


The book Spares, made as the movie, The Island, was about cloning. Some species naturally clone themselves such as anemone, grapes and lizards. The first creature cloned by humans was a tadpole in 1952. By 1995 technology had advanced enough to clone sheep – Megan and Molly. Although Molly had problems and so did her offspring.


The Ibex, a creature that became extinct in 2000, was cloned in 2009. Unfortunately, the clone only lasted 7 minutes. In 2004, the first cat was commercially cloned – Little Nicky cost $50,000. However, since cats are chimeric, it’s possible that the clone might not even look like the original and of course it may not act like it. We’ve now reached the point where Kew Gardens wants to start cloning their plants.


Brave New World and 1984 were both written and about the same time and, in a way, they both talk about genetic engineering. A Handmaid’s Tale spoke about a time when procreation could only happen via IVF and Oryx and Crake touched on epi-genetics (of which; more later)


In 2001, the first genetically altered babies were born. Some 12 years later The Daily Mail were going crazy about genetically modified babies (even though the mitochondria was 100% from the two parents) We’ve come a long way since Louise Brown, the first IVF baby was born in 1978.


In the movie Gattaca, your entire life is decided by your genes – could we be heading there in real life too? In South Korea there is an obligation for everyone to give a DNA sample to authorities. While this is initially being sold as a crime prevention measure, what happens when that data starts to be sold to health insurance companies? Is this the way forward for the rest of the world. In Iceland, 95% of the population voluntarily gave a sample for a scientific study.


The biggest selling book of all time has this to say, “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generation” (Deuteronomy 5:9) This is epi-genetics. Consider a pregnant woman – the mother is the first generation, her unborn daughter the second, and that daughter’s reproductive cells the third. So, if the mother smokes in pregnancy not only could she harm her daughter, she could also harm her grandchild.


This idea of effecting future generations has been tested in mice and there are also some examples in humans. During World War 2, the Dutch were starved by the Germans, they only received around 50% of their nutritional needs during occupation. Now, three generations later, we are seeing big differences in the population; obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular problems that can be traced back to what happened during the war.


The film No Blade of Grass features genetically engineered plants. In real life, we are already creating things such as golden rice. However, this has led to some issues. For example Monsanto sell GM crops that are infertile so that you can store the seeds and re-grow – you have to buy new seed every year.


We have also reached a point where we can now have three parent babies. There is only a little mitochondria in sperm – it’s in the tail and it helps the sperm to swim. However, there are some diseases in mitochondria so if there is a potential problem, you can “slice & dice” and get two mums and one dad.


How about the daddy of all genetics fiction – Jurassic Park? In Russia, people have been known to eat woolly mammoth remains, they are so well preserved. So, it could be possible to bring back long extinct creatures if their DNA has been stored in almost perfect conditions. There have already been experiments on Egyptian mummies to see in their DNA can help to track the spread of malaria.


We have learnt a lot about genetics over the last 60 years. Originally Watson-Crick originally thought there was a triple helix, it was Franklin who suggest a double one. We’re always learning new things but there are still some things that we can’t do – for example, we are still unable to identify a clone.


Dr Rutland has taught us that as technology improves, what was once science fiction has now become science fact.