By: Myles Power Edited by: Hannah & Peter
I have previously discussed, in part 1, how Hank Green from SciShow is guilty of voicing his own biased and uninformed opinions on the subject of genetic engineering. In his videos, Hank is not representing the views of the scientific community and is instead voicing his own uninformed opinions on a branch of science he perceives to be dangerous. I have shown how Hank is more than capable of cherry-picking highly discredited research that backs up his own views, whilst ignoring the mountains of data that contradicts them. Hank also shows that he is not above fear mongering when he calls synthetic biology an “extreme form of genetic engineering”. In this article I am going to show more examples of Hank’s bias, as well as his lack of knowledge and understanding of synthetic biology in the video ‘Glowing Rats and Extreme Genetic Engineering‘.
Screen capture from the video 'Glowing Rats and Extreme Genetic Engineering'
At around the one minute mark, Hank begins to talk about what synthetic biology actually is. He says, “We are talking about inventing new biological functions in systems; things not found in nature” and later goes on to say, "Scientists are now able to write a new genetic code from scratch and insert it into an organism." As an example of this new technology, Hank talks about the first cell with a synthetic genome, created by John Venter in 2010. Here, unknown to Hank, he has contradicted himself and has also managed to get the definition of synthetic biology wrong. The truth is there is no black and white definition of synthetic biology, as it overlaps with many other arms of science and uses an array of well understood and researched techniques. As I have previously said, this has led some scientists into believing that synthetic biology is nothing more than a buzzword, and simply an extension of “normal everyday old school” genetic engineering. Synthetic biology however does not exclusively deal with new code that is not found in nature; nor does it exclusively use DNA that has been made by a DNA synthesiser.
A somewhat accurate picture of DNA with colour coded bases
I have previously worked with a system that would fall under the category of synthetic biology. I wanted to test a library of guanine based compounds I synthesised against mutant riboswitches capable of accepting them. To do this I used a bacteria that contained the GFP gene down stream of the mutant riboswitch I wanted to investigate. If the ligand successfully bound to the riboswitch, activating it, then I would get a fluorescent reading. To control the system directly upstream of the riboswitch I had a lac promoter. Just to clarify, I had GFP under the control of a mutant riboswitch under the control of a lac promoter – all of which uses code that (apart from a few modifications) is found in nature, and apart from the primers nothing came from a DNA synthesiser.
Image of a riboswitch similar to the ones I was investigating
John’s synthetic organism did not contain new genes from scratch, nor did he exclusively use a DNA synthesiser. The organism contained the minimal 283 genes required to support bacterial life, all of which are inspired or found in nature. John and others working on the project did not sit down one day and simply decide to write a whole new genome as Hank implies. He did however add a small amount of non coding DNA which he called the organisms “watermark”. This non-coding region can be decoded to give the code table for entire alphabet with punctuations, names of the 46 contributing scientists, three quotes, and the web address for the cell. Although the news of the first synthetic organism was big news in the public eye, the reaction in the scientific community was “… Hmmm, that’s interesting.” Not to underplay John’s amazing achievement, but I and other scientists were not really surprised that DNA from a synthesiser could do the same job as regular old DNA. Yes it is interesting and must have taken an unimaginable amount of time and research to accomplish, but it’s not a game changer. Some scientists I worked with that don’t exclusively work with genetics even said, “What? No one has done that before?!” Although John’s organism is known as the first synthetic organism, many of you will be interested to know that it is not truly synthetic and neither is its DNA. Its genome was synthesised in segments by a DNA synthesiser which were then stitched together and replicated in yeast cells. The code, once finished, was then transplanted into a host bacterium not synthesised in a lab, but found in nature.
A map of part of the synthetic organisms genome
I can’t overemphasise the importance of tone in videos. Although Hank talks about some applications of synthetic biology (bio-bricks, an organism that produces isoprene and algae that can produce bio-fuel), the overall tone of the video is dismissive of the technology. In fact Hank only spends 37 seconds of a video over 4 minutes long talking about its applications, whilst the rest of the video is dedicated to what him and Eric Hoffman perceive to be dangerous about it. Genetic engineering/synthetic biology has the potential of solving a lot of the world’s problems, and for someone who started his own eco technology based website (ecogeek.org), Hank seems to be glossing over one application that has the potential of significantly helping mankind and the planet – the ability to create bacteria that used sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars and other carbohydrates (including fuel) quickly and cheaply. I don’t understand why Hank would not think this is a huge jump forward for technology and for the planet’s environment. To quote Hank on ecogeek.com: “Those who shun technologies that could save the planet are just as guilty as those who ignore the environment.”