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BBC World Service - Discovery

Discovery

Explorations in the world of science.

Discovery

  • Genetic Dreams, Genetic Nightmares
    CRISPR is the latest and most powerful technique for changing the genetic code of living things. This method of gene editing is already showing great promise in treating people with gene-based diseases, from sickle cell disease to cancer. However, in 2018 the use of CRISPR to edit the genes of two human embryos, which were subsequently born as two girls in China, caused outrage. The experiment was done in secrecy and created unintended changes to the children's genomes - changes that could be inherited by their children and their children's children. The scandal underlined the grave safety and ethical concerns around heritable genome editing, and called into doubt the ability of the scientific community to self-regulate this use of CRISPR. CRISPR gene editing might also be used to rapidly and permanently alter populations of organisms in the wild, and indeed perhaps whole ecosystems, through a technique called a gene drive. A gene drive is a way of biasing inheritance, of getting a gene (even a deleterious one) to rapidly multiply and copy itself generation after generation, sweeping exponentially through a population. In theory, this could be used to eradicate species such as agricultural pests or disease-transmitting mosquitoes, or to alter them in some way: for example, making mosquitoes unable to carry the malaria parasite. But do we know enough about the consequences of releasing a self-perpetuating genetic technology like this into the environment, even if gene drives could, for example, eradicate insects that spread a disease which claims hundreds of thousands of deaths every year? And who should decide whether gene drives should be released? Picture: DNA molecule, Credit: KTSDesign/SCIENCEPHOTOLIBRARY/Getty Images

  • Genetic dreams, genetic nightmares
    Professor Matthew Cobb looks at how genetic engineering became big business - from the first biotech company that produced human insulin in modified bacteria in the late 1970s to the companies like Monsanto which developed and then commercialised the first GM crops in the 1990s. Were the hopes and fears about these products of genetic engineering realised? Thanks to The State of Things from North Carolina Public Radio WUNC for the interview with Mary-Dell Chilton. (Picture: DNA molecule, Credit: KTSDesign/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)

  • The Evidence: Healthcare pushed out by the pandemic
    As all eyes have been on the virus, other serious killer diseases took a backseat. Resources and staff were diverted, lockdowns were common all over the world and a very real fear of Covid-19 kept people away from clinics and hospitals. Claudia Hammond and her expert panel from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America look at the devastating impact of the pandemic on illnesses other than Covid, on global killers like tuberculosis, polio, measles and HIV/Aids. And they hear that the worldwide disruption to cancer care will inevitably lead to late diagnoses, late-stage cancer treatment and more deaths. Dr Ramya Ananthakrishnan runs REACH, which supports, cares for and organises treatment for TB patients in Chennai, India’s fourth most populous city. She tells Claudia about how hard the pandemic hit the work they do. Claudia’s guests include Dr Abeeba Kamarulzaman, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the President of the International Aids Society; Dr Lucica Ditiu, respiratory physician originally from Romania, Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership, Geneva, Switzerland; Dr Balcha Masresha, coordinator of the measles and rubella programmes for the World Health Organisation in Brazzaville, Congo and cancer physician Dr Carlos Barrios, Director of the Latin American Clinical Oncology Research Group from Brazil. Produced by: Fiona Hill and Maria Simons Studio Engineer: Bob Nettles

  • Genetic dreams, genetic nightmares
    Biologist Matthew Cobb presents the first episode in a series which looks at the 50-year history of genetic engineering, from the concerns around the first attempts at combining the DNA of one organism with the genes of another in 1971 to today’s gene editing technique known as CRISPR. The first experiments to combine the DNA of two different organisms began at Stanford University in California in 1971. The revolutionary technique of splicing genes from one lifeform into another promised to be a powerful tool in understanding how our cells worked. It also offered the prospect of a new cheap means of manufacturing life-saving drugs – for example, by transferring the gene for human insulin into bacteria, growing those genetically engineered microbes in industrial vats and harvesting the hormone. A new industrial revolution based on biology looked possible. At the same time some scientists and the public were alarmed by disastrous scenarios that genetic engineering might unleash. What if microbes engineered with toxin genes or cancer genes escaped from the labs and spread around the world? In early 1974, responding to the public fears and their own disquiet about how fast the techniques were developing, the scientists leading this research revolution called for a global moratorium on genetic engineering experiments until the risks had been assessed. This was followed by an historic meeting of 130 scientists from around the world in February 1975 in California. Its purpose was to decide if and how the genetic engineering research could be done safely. It was a rancorous affair but the Asilomar conference is held up as an idealist if imperfect example of scientists taking responsibility as they developed a powerful new technology. (Picture: DNA molecule, Credit: KTS Design/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)

  • Listening to coral reefs
    Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and also some of the noisiest. Up close, a healthy reef teems with trills, whoops, buzzes, hums and snaps made by the diverse lifeforms that inhabit it. But as many reefs are now degrading due to rising temperatures, their sound signatures are changing. Conservationist Rory Crawford meets marine scientists who believe these sounds could provide a new way of monitoring the health of coral reefs, and boosting their resilience. He listens in to soundscapes that have been recorded around reefs in diverse parts of the world, and hears a selection of the sometimes surprising noises that have been picked up by researchers’ hydrophones. Sounds are crucial to underwater species and a healthy-sounding reef will attract fish and other organisms to settle on it, so is it possible to use acoustics to boost the ecosystem on damaged coral? Underwater recordings courtesy of: Tim Lamont/University of Exeter, Ben Gottesman, The Centre for Global Soundscapes, and Discovery of Sound in the Sea Producer: Anne McNaught Editor: Deborah Cohen Picture: The underwater world of Philippines, Southeast Asia, Pacific Ocean, Credit: Giordano Cipriani/Getty Images