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Synthetic biology and the rise of the 'spider-goats'

Horizon presenter Adam Rutherford looks at the advances in synthetic biology and genetic engineering that have resulted in, among other things, computer-made life forms and cancer assassin cells


Adam Rutherford, left, and Randy Lewis milk Freckles, the silk-producing goat. Photograph: BBC

Freckles looks like a perfectly normal kid. She has bright eyes, a healthy white pelt and gambols happily with Pudding, Sweetie and her five other siblings, exactly as you might imagine young goats do. Until I fend her off, she's very keen on chewing my trousers. To the casual observer, and to goatherds, she shows no signs that she is not a perfectly normal farmyard goat.

But Freckles is a long way from normal. She is an extraordinary creation, an animal that could not have existed at any point in history before the 21st century. She is all goat, but she has something extra in every one of her cells: Freckles is also part spider.

That is what we can now do with genetics: extreme crossbreeding. If 20th-century biology was about taking living things apart to find out how they work, the current era is defined by putting them back together, but not necessarily as evolution decreed, and certainly without the clumsy constraints of mating. Freckles is the result of genetic engineering. But our mastery of manipulating DNA has evolved into an even more extreme form of tinkering, broadly called "synthetic biology". I've been tracking this emerging field since finishing my PhD in genetics 10 years ago, but intensely in the last year as a presenter for the BBC's flagship science strand, Horizon.

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TAGGED: GENETICS


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