In June 2016, BBC current affairs programme Panorama conducted a whistle-stop tour around potential applications of CRISPR, the emerging gene editing technology.
In Medicine’s Big Breakthrough… Editing Your Genes (30 mins), Fergus Walsh talks to a number of key players in the field. These include Jennifer Doudna, credited as one of the co-creators of CRISPR as an editing took, George Church who is looking to humanise pig organs to reduce the likelihood of rejection, and Fyodor Urnov (from Sangamo Biosciences) who is trying to use the technology to tackle diseases such as AIDS and haemophilia. Alison van Eenennaam discusses genetic approaches to making horn-less cattle (which, she argues, is more humane than the current methods for removing existing horns). Walsh also visits biohacking entrepreneur Josiah Zayner, and Kathy Niakan from the Crick Institute who has the UK’s first licence to use CRISPR with human embryos.
The video is good at raising ethical as well as scientific questions. I can see this episode either serving as a very nice introduction to the topic, which students could be asked to watch before a face-to-face teaching session, or alternatively one or more of the vignettes could be used as illustrative clip(s) within a lecture.
A transcript of the programme is available via this link.
There are a several introductory videos about CRISPR on YouTube. These include one produced by The Royal Society, available via this link. It starts from quite a low level, and so is probably most applicable for a school audience. A second, longer, video produced by Kurzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”) is available via this link.
Broadcaster: BBC News (and BBC 1)
There has been growing concern about antibiotic resistance over recent years. One alternative is to use bacteriophage (phage), viruses that attack bacteria. The idea is not new, it was actively pursued in the former Soviet Union, but is now being investigated in a rigorous way in western countries.
In this 2.5 minute news story, Martha Clokie from the University of Leicester discusses the potential to use freeze-dried phage in place of antibiotics. The initial trials are due to take place with farm pigs.
For more on this story follow this link.
For other programmes on phage therapy follow this link.
Review by June Adams
In 2011, comedy writer Paul Mayhew-Archer (whose work includes The Vicar of Dibley) became one of about 127,000 people in the UK diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year. At that time, he was told to expect “five good years”. Since then laughter, chocolate, medication and exercise classes run for Parkinson’s patients by the English National Ballet have helped keep his spirits up and his symptoms relatively in check. However with those five good years now passed, Paul begins to ask what the coming years may hold for him and his condition.
As you can imagine from the title, this is not a serious scientific documentary – but there are short sections that might prove useful to demonstrate different forms of intervention being used to understand more about Parkinson’s, to treat the symptoms and/or to find a potential cure. With the help of various Departments of Oxford University, Paul investigates:
- Tests for Parkinson’s, including development of a phone app that help doctors with an early diagnosis of the disease (this clip, 1.47 mins)
- Deep brain stimulation for controlling tremors (this clip, 3.30 mins), and
- News of a possible cure involving stem cells (this clip, 1.54 mins).
Along the way, Paul meets other people with Parkinson’s and discovers how everyone’s experience of the disease is different; each has a unique combination of symptoms, some of which are much more troubling than others. As he summarises in closing:
“A philosopher once said, I think it was Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” And Parkinson’s is like a particularly rubbish sort of box of chocolates. Every symptom, every chocolate is particularly disgusting. But some are more disgusting than others. And let’s hope, as I come to the end of my five good years, that I won’t end up with the orange cream.”
Increasing global population and food demands drive the discovery for new food sources and imminent dietary change
Broadcaster: BBC TWO
Review by Ella Yabsley
This 4.5-minute clip from BBC Two’s Food & Drink could serve as a useful discussion-starter when considering the ethics of global meat consumption. The clip begins with the introduction of a new type of food source, cultured beef or in vitro meat (IVM). A team from Maastricht University (Holland) claim that IVM was produced for numerous reasons: IVM is more sustainable compared to traditional animal farming practices; it could solve the current (and future) food crisis; and it could also help to combat climate change. Regardless of your ethical standpoint, this clip highlights some of the ethical, economic and health-related tensions that the ‘Western World’ is facing with regards to animal agriculture. Continue reading
Reviewed by Emma Sterling
“They might be cute but the mess some dogs leave behind is unpleasant and can also be dangerous. That’s why Barking and Dagenham council in East London are doing this: encouraging dog owners to register their pets’ DNA.”
It may sound like a joke, but this clip from BBC Breakfast (6 minutes) covers the story on the latest plans by the East London Borough of Barking & Dagenham to combat the problem of dog mess on the streets. Aside from being unsightly, dog faeces on the street pose a health risk, mainly to young children, who could contract toxocariasis by unintentionally ingesting roundworm parasites after touching mud laced with faeces. Barking and Dagenham spend approximately £2.3million a year cleaning up dog excrement and, in times of austerity, it is increasingly important that this sum is reduced by encouraging people to pick up after their pets.
The borough have partnered with PooPrints®, a company specialising in the genetic analysis of dog waste to give residents the opportunity to have their dog’s DNA stored on a database. This would be of potential benefit to registering owners to allow them to identify their dog if it is lost or stolen. Most importantly, in the context of the story, it will eliminate their pet in inquiries into the identity of any dog whose faeces have been left in the street. If the owner is found, they will be sent a warning letter. If there is a second offense, then they will be fined £80. At the moment, the service is voluntary which could be a problem as some may be unwilling to potentially incriminate themselves. However, the service is free for the first 1,000 dogs, which could provide an incentive, and the suggestion is made that it might be factored into future rent agreements in order to be granted permission to use the local parks. Continue reading
Broadcaster: BBC News
Review by Emma Sterling
“For people from an ethnic minority background like me and my family, finding yourself in a situation where you need an organ transplant can sometimes feel like a death sentence.”
This short documentary (26 minutes) investigates the lack of Black, Asian, Minority ethnic group (BAME) organ donors and explores the influence this shortage has on the transplant black market overseas. The programme follows BBC news presenter Seb Choudhury as he donates a kidney to his mother Sakina, who had been given 3 years to live without a transplant (whereas the waiting list without his intervention might have been up to 10 years). Continue reading
The specialist “embryo flushing” team can implant up to 1500 surrogates in a year.
Broadcaster: BBC 1
Genre: Documentary, Magazine
A seven-minute clip from the popular BBC rural affairs programme Countryfile, looking at “embryo flushing” a modern IVF-based method that is replacing traditional selective breeding on many farms.
Embryos are removed from a pedigree cow using a saline flush and she is later fertilised by a bull in the traditional manner. The quality of the harvested embryos can be examined at the on-farm laboratory and the best placed into other non-pedigree cows. In this way it becomes possible for the cow with desirable characteristics to be the biological mother of perhaps six calves at one time. As the technique gains in popularity, the specialist can transfer as many as 1500 embryos in a year.
Other applications of this approach include being able to breed using the best genetic stock from around the world, and allowing for deep freezing of embryos as a safeguard against some catastrophic outbreak. The approach was recently used to re-introduce 100 long-horn cattle into Australia.
The first film in the re-launched franchise is rich in ethical dilemmas
Broadcaster: Film 4
Year: 2014 (cinema release 2011)
Genre: Film, Fiction, Science Fiction
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first of the re-launched film series (followed by the vastly inferior Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). The film is a veritable feast of bioethics issues. To find out more please take a visit to our sister site Bioethicsbytes (follow this link). The IMDb page for the film can be found via this link.
More details about the potential uses of this film for teaching can be found at Bioethicsbytes
Selective breeding of foxes over the past 50 years has been used to produce foxes that are especially tame, and especially aggressive
Broadcaster: BBC 2
Review by Dr Steve Maw (University of Leeds)
This 8.5 minute clip is taken from Horizon: The Secret Life of Dogs and gives an overview of a long-term breeding experiment of Silver foxes in Siberia. The clip demonstrates some of the extraordinary changes that simple selective breeding (in this case for non-aggression) can make over a few generations and as such provides a model of how domestication may have taken place. It also highlights some of the side effects of this breeding programme (e.g. colour changes) which show remarkable similarity to some domestic dog characteristics.
As well as natural section I also teach artificial selection. There are a number of discussion points that can potentially come out of the clip. Firstly the power of simple selective breeding and that not all changes are due to GM! Secondly it illustrates that these genes are already in the population. As some foetuses were swapped reference can also be made to the nature v nurture argument. I think it also could be used to in ethical discussions.
WARNING: There is a word of caution, however, as the foxes are kept in conditions people may find distressing.
The programme includes an engaging animated history of our understanding of inheritance
Broadcaster: BBC 2
Genre: Magazine show
Review by Amy Evans
In 2012 well-known comedian (and theoretical physics graduate) Dara Ó Briain launched his eponymous Science Club. This first episode of season 1 focuses on reproduction and inheritance, including the importance of bicycles to human development. Although the show’s approach is light-hearted and humorous, there is actually a lot of information given about genetics and key speakers, such as leading geneticist Steve Jones, are involved so that the information given is up to date (at the time of showing). The show is aimed at viewers who have a relatively basic initial knowledge, but elements of it might be good to watch as a re-cap when starting new modules.
A brief history of genetics (2:46, starting at 02:23, see this clip) a nice animation, summarising our understanding of inheritance from Aristotle via van Leeuwenhoek, Bakewell, Mendel and Morgan and ending with elucidation of the double helix by Watson and Crick.
Does sex work? An interview with Professor Steve Jones. Ó Briain and Jones discuss the inefficiencies of sexual reproduction, especially from the female perspective. Jones argues that invention of the bicycle is the most important step in human evolution, because it allowed intermingling of the gene pools with residents of the next village. Now, across the world, we are becoming much less isolated genetically. After a consideration of the history of the bicycle, they return to discussing the importance of genetic diversity. Generally speaking the marital distance, that is the geographical distance between the birthplace of partners relative to the distance between the birthplaces of their respective parents, gets greater generation by generation. Jones explains that genetic health may improve as we are less likely to encounter recessive mutations common within a subpopulation (for example, if you want to avoid having a child with cystic fibrosis breed with someone from Nigeria). Continue reading