Anyone for Gene Editing? (Panorama)

panoramageneediting1Broadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2016

Genre: Documentary


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.

transcript from programme

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.


Meeting the demand for meat

Year: 2016

Broadcaster: BBC 1

Genre: Documentary


Full original programme URL:

Review by June Adams

The current worldwide demand for meat is huge, and growing faster than production rates can keep up with. How will we stop our commercial supply of meat from running out?

One way that farmers have tried to tackle the beef shortage is by producing cows that give more meat.  Belgian blues are a type of cow that has been specially bred to have 20% more muscle than the average cow, equating to 900 more quarter pounders. They can be reared to weigh up to one tonne! However, the extreme looking breed is controversial and difficult to farm. Belgian blue cows are unable to give birth naturally, and the calves often suffer from joint and heart problems. Is there a way to increase meat production without overburdening livestock?

In this five minute clip from the series Tomorrow’s Food, Professor Mark Post has managed to grow a burger in a lab by extracting stem cells from a tiny piece of meat, which then multiplied for 8 weeks in an incubator to make new muscle tissue. It takes 30 billion cells to make a single burger. The process is faster and may require less energy than rearing a whole cow, but it produces a very small amount of meat that costs a lot; a lab-grown burger costs over $200,000. In order to reduce costs to make the process viable on the market, production would need to be scaled up drastically – Olympic swimming pool sized incubation tanks! With some work, hopefully lab-grown burgers will become cheap enough to be sold commercially in less than 10 years.

World’s first lab-grown burger is eaten in London (5th August 2013)

Meat the future?


Increasing global population and food demands drive the discovery for new food sources and imminent dietary change

Broadcaster: BBC TWO

Year: 2014

Genre: Factual


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

Playing God (Horizon)

These goats have been genetically engineered to produce spider silk in their milk

These goats have been genetically engineered to produce spider silk in their milk

Broadcaster: BBC2

Year: 2012

Genre: Factual

This excellent episode from the 2012 series of the BBC science programme Horizon looks at the emerging field of synthetic biology. Presenter Adam Rutherford conducts a tour round some of the key developments:

  • Transgenic goats that produce silk protein in their milk;
  • “Synthia” the bacteria assembled from an emptied cell and DNA ordered over the internet;
  • Specially constructed gene modules known as “Biobricks” and the associated international genetically engineered machines (iGEM) competition;
  • Biodiesel production;
  • Bioterrorism;
  • DIY biology (“Biohacking”);
  • Nanotube biocapsules; and
  • Synthetic neurobiology.

There is a longer post about the ethical aspects of this episode on the sister-blog Bioethicsbytes. Summary notes, with timings, are here.

The Cell

The three part series is an excellent introduction to our developing understanding of cell biology

The three part series is an excellent introduction to our developing understanding of cell biology

Broadcaster: BBC
Year: 2009
Genre: Documentary

Series of three hour-long documentaries presented by geneticist Adam Rutherford.

1. The Hidden Kingdom

The first episode starts with the revelations brought by early microscopy. Specifically, the observation of minute organisms by Antonia van Leeuwenhoek. It moves on to discuss the work of Robert Hooke in confirming the existence of microbes, and broadening interest into analysis of other cells. Robert Brown observed and named the nucleus within a cell (and also described the phenomenon we now call “Brownian motion”. Theodor Schwann and Matthias Schleiden made vital observations about the importance of cells as the building blocks of both animals and plants (though they were not alone in getting distracted by prevailing notions of spontaneous generation). Louis Pasteur’s invention of the swan neck flask was ultimately crucial in ruling out this theory. The programme moves on to Robert Remak’s observation of cell division, for which the data – and the credit – was stolen by his “friend” Rudolf Virchow.

2. The Chemistry of Life

In episode two, Rutherford’s attention moves to the experiments which established that DNA is the molecule of inheritance. This is my favourite episode in the series. It sweeps across from the original identification of DNA by Friedrich Miescher in 1868, through the work of Theodore Boveri in visualising chromosomes, and onto Thomas Hunt Morgan’s experiments with Drosophila melanogaster looking at patterns of inheritance and the start of mapping genes within those chromosomes. It continues onto the more familiar molecular biology of Griffith & Avery, Wilkins & Franklin and Watson & Crick. It finishes with a certain “yuk” factor as Walter Gehring demonstrates mutant Drosophila covered with eyes as the result of homeobox gene mutations.

3. The Spark of Life

In the final episode, Rutherford moves to thinking about synthetic biology (a topic he returns to in the Horizon episode Playing God). One of the first developments in this regards involved adapting bacteria to make biodiesel. He puts these developments in the context of wider evolutionary theory, that all life sprung from one single organism.

Example usage: For several years I have used The Chemistry of Life with first year students. In a double-lecture slot (the episode is an hour long) I have shown the programme in its entirety, providing this A4 sheet to help students with their note-taking. In the remaining time we’ve reviewed some of the key curriculum-relevant content, particular reiterating the experiments by Griffiths and Avery.

The “modular” coverage of key discoveries lends itself to the overall programme being divided into shorter clips for specific usage. Since the links above go in effect to existing clips (albeit the full episode), to make sub-clips you would need to follow the link to the “full programme”.

As an Open University co-production, it was previously necessary to buy the rights to use of this material, however it is now included under the terms of the Educational Recording Agency license.