I just got done listening to the latest episode of Futures in Biotech, a podcast on the TWiT Network. The episode was about the project working to sequence the Neanderthal genome. I've mentioned this podcast in previous posts, but decided to go into more detail, because I think it has some real value for educators. Podcasts can of course be used directly with students, but more importantly can be used for your own professional development. I will never share the majority of the podcasts I listen to with my students, but I share the information I learn all the time.
Futures in Biotech is hosted by Marc Pelletier, a graduate student working in molecular biology. The podcast seeks to explain some of the cutting edge research in the world of genomics, molecular biology, and biochemistry in terms simple enough for normal people to understand. I'm not sure how well Pelletier does this, because as anyone who knows me could tell you, I'm anything but normal. Beyond being strange I have a Master's in Evolutionary Biology and have a strong education in the material presented in the podcast.
The format of Futures in Biotech has Pelletier, sometimes joined by co-host Leo Laporte, interviewing scientists on the front lines of research. In the latest episode Pelletier interviews Dr. Svente Paabo, Director of the Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Dr. Thomas Jarvie, Technical Application Manage at 454 Life Sciences. Dr. Paabo is working to assemble a complete genome of our closest extinct relatives, the Neanderthal. Dr. Jarvie talked about how modern genome sequencing is accomplished and how it was being used for this project. All in all it was a very informative and thought provoking episode.
The one piece that made it even more thought provoking was a bit Pelletier replayed from a previous episode. In episode 8 Pelletier interviewed Dr. Drew Endy about synthetic biology. In that episode Dr. Endy talked about the importance of being able to synthetically build DNA to order and how in the next ten years we should reach a point where we can assemble whole genomes... This right in front of an episode about sequencing the whole genome for an extinct species was, for me, mind blowing. Imagine being able to bring back extinct species. We wouldn't need to have intact cells with intact nuclear DNA to clone these species. We just need enough DNA from enough cells to rebuild the complete genome.
This brought to mind some great ideas for discussions in bioethics. Is it ethical to clone animals from the past? Is it ethical not to? If it's not ethical to clone a human, is it ethical to clone a Neanderthal? Even though we can't do these things today we will likely be able to do them in the future and possibly even in the lifetimes of our students. Our technological advances often out pace society's ability to deal with them. Our society today, as a whole, doesn't posses the scientific literacy necessary to critically evaluate the value of or potential problems posed by new technologies.
Already some scientists are trying to bring back Mammoths. They seek to find frozen animals that may have intact testes so they can extract viable sperm to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid. Is this a good idea? Should we do this? Should we not? Is it a waste of money and resources that could be put to better use, or is it likely to lead to new important scientific discoveries?
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