Synthetic Biology: playing God, or just plain odd? (part 1)

Synthetic Biology was not a term I’d ever come across before my boyfriend announced he was taking a job working on it. So, being a curious type, I looked it up. According to syntheticbiology.org (the natural first calling point for lazy googlers) synthetic biology is A) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, or B) the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. To translate from jargon, synthetic biologists aim to manipulate existing biological ‘parts’ and put them together in new ways to generate organisms with new functions. This still sounds pretty vague to me, but it’s important to pay attention to synthetic biology. Regardless of how familiar you are

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Love-hate relationships on a microscopic level

My name is Jenny and I am a developmental biologist. It’s a hopeless addiction, brought about by the awe inspiring process of making a baby. Get you mind out of the gutter! I’m talking about the process by which a single egg cell, fertilised by a single sperm, grows and divides over and over again to make the 100,000,000,000,000 cells present in a human body. What’s more, these cells don’t just replicate but also somehow organise themselves into lungs, a heart, bones, blood, eyes, a brain and much more. The day that I realised that I could get paid to spend my time trying to understand how this happens was the day I felt that I was finally onto a winner.

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It’s all talk part 2: If the news makes you sad, don’t watch it

The papers love a scare story, this much we know. Every week a different food is denounced as cancer-causing, and we are instructed to avoid it like the plague for the sake of preserving the health of ourselves and our children.  The data behind this kind of story is often quite wishy washy. In fact, some papers go so far as to report that the very same things that cause cancer can also protect us against it (here’s a comprehensive list of the every day objects, chemicals and foods that one particular newspaper claims will cause or prevent cancer, or both. And here it is in musical form).

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Here come the girls (and other sickeningly cliched expressions)

Three model-esque girls in high heels and short skirts strut towards a male scientist in a lab coat. Looking up from his microscope, his chiselled jaw drops as the girls strike a pose in front of him. Rather than the opening of a blue movie, this is the beginning of a horribly misguided advert aiming to tempt girls to pursue science. It gets worse. Shots of bubbling liquid in beakers are cut with make up brushes and nail varnishes. ‘Come on girls!’ the ad cajoules us ‘You CAN do science! Look, it’s a bit like make up!’ This patronizing piece of sexism was taken down within 12 hours of the campaign launch, although naturally it lives on through the power of Youtube. But why didn’t the campaign leaders think to use some of the amazing women working in science today? Jane Goodall, chimpanzee whisperer, for example, or the less well known but equally cool Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard whose studies of fruit flies with genetic mutations provided huge insights into how an embryo develops, and won her a Nobel prize in 1995.

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Super-powered stem cells

Wolverine from the X-men is pretty awesome. Not only does he have a hairdo to die for and claws coated in adamantium (ask you nearest nerd), he also has the power to self-heal. As a naturally clumsy person, if I could pick a superpower then regeneration would be amongst my top choices, along with the clichéd invisibility and maybe a super-human metabolism. Excitingly, whilst many superhero powers remain just that, super, a breakthrough in stem cell technology may have brought us mere mortals a step closer to mimicking Wolverine’s healing powers*.

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There is Nothing but Chemistry here

Phew! All this hardcore science chat is tiring. Time to lighten up for a minute or two.

This week the first allinthegenes column was published in Essex newspaper the Harlow Star.  Hopefully the blog will now be a regular feature on the Harlow Star website. You can check it out if you want, although be warned; it’s not dissimilar to what you’ve already read.

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GM debate crops up again

Thirty years ago this month, scientists introduced a foreign gene into plant cells for the first time. Genetically modified (GM) plant technology was born. But, almost 20 years after the research was first used commercially, no GM crops are sold in the UK. Indeed, the use of GM plants is strictly regulated throughout the EU.  This is in stark contrast to other developed countries such as the USA, Canada and China, where the supply of staples such as maize, cotton and soya beans now comes predominantly from GM plants. So why has the UK been so slow to follow in the footsteps of other global powers?

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It’s all talk

In my previous blog posts I have mentioned the importance of a good relationship between science and the media a couple of times. The MMR jab scare perfectly exemplifies the danger of a breakdown in this line of communication. With measles cases still rising, the papers are full of articles about where it all went wrong; who was to blame, and how such a fiasco could be prevented from happening again.  In thinking about this, it’s very easy to point the blame squarely at the media. The journalists reporting the scare failed to understand the science, or lack thereof, behind the claims. But scientists must also take a more active role in maintaining a good relationship with the media.

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Animal rights and wrongs

The BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) published an exposé this weekend on what they call ‘the terrible plight of animals’’ at Imperial College London. A member of the group spent seven months working as a technician at the University’s animal facility, secretly recording the researchers and rodents in their day-to-day lives. The 10 minute long film is uncomfortable to watch, even as someone who believes that vivisection is necessary. But this is not because the BUAV’s spy managed to uncover routine torture, as they would have you believe. It’s because, if there were alternatives, no one would choose to put animals through surgery and euthanasia in a captive environment. Unfortunately, what this piece of propaganda neglects to mention is that the research being carried out is vital. There are no alternatives.

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