Blizzard Bag D Block H. Bio Day 1

Blizzard Bag Lesson Plan 1:
The First Synthetic Cell

     This year in Biology we have covered the characteristics of what make a living organism. Our definition of what it means to be living might start to change. Recently Craig Venter and his team of researchers have created the first synthetic cell.  This bacterium uses the membrane, cytoplasm, and organelles of naturally occurring bacteria but its genome has been completely replaced with an artificial chromosome designed by the scientists. Why do this? Several papers and magazines have looked into this research and that question. Today I would like you to investigate this discovery and discuss its potential and possible consequences.

Step1: Watch this video 60 minutes produced about Craig Venter and his research


If the link doesn’t work, Google “Craig Venter 60 Minutes” and you should be able to easily find it.


Step 2: Read ONE of the following articles on the first synthetic cell.

A New York Times article on the first synthetic cell:

A BBC article on the discovery of the fist synthetic cell:

The original scientific article in Science :

A New York Times article focusing Craig Venter

Step 3: Post a short one or two paragraph reflection on the video and article in the comment section below this blog post. You might want to discuss or try to answer one of the following questions in your post.
  • Do you think the benefits of this technology are worth the risks?
  • Who, if anyone, should decide if this research and technology should continue?
  • What rules or regulations would you put into place to protect the environment?  Should there be any?
  • What other “bugs” (bacteria) can you imagine creating to solve a modern day problem?
  • Are there any other potential problems with this technology you can think of not mentioned in the video or articles?
  • Do you think this bacterium should truly be called synthetic? Why or why not?
  • Would you as a consumer use products made from or using these organisms?  Why or why not?

Step 4: Respond to at least one of the posts by your classmates. You can ask a question or make a follow-up statement. Be polite in your discussion and respect everyone’s opinions even if you are in disagreement.

Grading: This lesson will be graded as a classwork assignment. 50 points will be awarded for your original reflection, and another 50 points for your response to your classmates post. 



33 comments:

  1. The benefits of this technology are worth the risks, but the risks should not go unnoticed. If this technology continues to be researched and developed, the things that could come from this would be incredible for treating diseases that would otherwise be incurable. At the same time, people could use this to design organisms with all of the traits that they want, essentially creating a "perfect" being. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't want this to go down the path of being able to pick specific traits of your future offspring. That decision is something that should be left to nature to decide.

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    1. Hello Trevor, nice comment!
      I feel similarly about the danger of creating a dystopian GATTACA style future (I assume that is what you are gesturing at, though I could be wrong), although I do hope that in some way we might hopefully be able to get the politicians get something right the very first try for once (man, I'm starting to see your point about nature deciding.) Maybe we could possibly use one of those sentient A.I. computers we are almost inevitably going to make to randomize our traits so that having children is at least similar to how its done now -- maybe we could have a few random defects thrown in there to keep us human -- but without all the life potential ruining bad stuff!
      I don't know, it's nice to at least imagine that at least somehow we will be able to make bio-engineering and Artificial Intelligence to work for good since there is so many possible ways for it to not work...
      Its always nice to dream that maybe some glimmer of beauty and hope will shine through all the greed and hatred that threatens this new technology.

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    2. It is interesting to think what organisms artificial intelligence might be able to program in these microbes. The possibilities are endless. Both of you mentioned needing to go into the research carefully. Who should set up criteria to determine what research to pursue and what not to ? UN? Each country? Research Universities?

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  2. Somebody once said "In war there is no prize for runner-up" -- I can only hope that things work differently in biology class.
    I personally feel that the main reason we need to limit our development of this technology until we impose proper rules is that of bio-weapons. The ability to create customized pathogens is one of the the ultimate goals of biological warfare; this because allows scientists to create pathogens specifically designed to attack one type of organisms, for example, it could be humans. A customized pathogen could be made to specifically target the inner weaknesses of our bodies so that the disease could replicate at extraordinarily high rates and sweep through whole civilizations and even entire planets, wiping them barren of all human life. As terrible as this apocalyptic image of our warfare-induced-disease-ridden Armageddon, the scariest part is the seemingly useless detail that the pathogens could be coded using this new technology to not simply effect hosts who have taken a specific drug as a vaccine. Everybody can come up with some way of making this work -- for example, telling the pathogens to stop doing anything else except for producing this drug until the pathogen lyses, thus spreads the drug throughout the host, and eliminating the infection from the host's body. The true reason why this is scary is that there are so many drugs that an infected planet/civilization would have an extraordinarily hard time figuring out which drug to vaccinate against before massive damage would be inflicted -- but if the plague spread to the nation which caused the disaster the health officials could simply inject the drug into all infected victims, and safely eradicate it (granted, it would be difficult to do, and it would probably reveal the drug's identity, but it would be worth it to prevent the onslaught.) In short, biological warfare is now a valid military option, USING WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION IS A GOOD IDEA!!!!!
    This has the potential to revolutionize war (which we should totally end anyways) and lead to an apocalyptic destruction of society.

    Wow, I'm a bit alarmist today!

    There are many ways this technology can be used for good, but it also can be used for great evil as well -- TAKE THAT INTO ACCOUNT
    EVEN IF YOU ARE WRITING A FAIRLY ONE-SIDED COMMENT (like me) BE ACCEPTING!!!
    --Cyrus

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    1. Cyrus,
      Your concerns are valid. It alway makes me nervous that in AP biology with $150 in supplies we can modify bacteria in the H.S. lab. The knowledge on how to do these changes is out there and so far it has not been used to weaponize microbes. More research dollars should probably be spent on how to protect ourselves from bio-terrorism. The United States has stockpiles of some drugs. Here is a story from a while ago of the US stockpile of smallpox vacinehttp://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/13/health/us-stockpiles-smallpox-drug-in-case-of-bioterror-attack.html

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    2. Interesting, I did not know that the stockpile existed, though I think that it is a very smart idea to build it to help prevent loss of life.

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  3. In the future, as someone who could be a consumer of the products of these technologies, the only one I could mostly support is the use of biotechnology replacing fossil fuels and a possible cure for incurable diseases. I'd never knew that biotechnology could be used to replace fossil fuels and I believe it is a wonderful idea. There would be definite downsides, like the amount of the algae needed for this new fuel and if it would work for all transportation vehicles but it's worth it if it means helping the ecosystem in the future.
    Sharing my opinions off of what Cyrus and Trevor said I totally agree that we should use this new technology to help cure diseases we have no other way of fighting, but that's it. I don't believe that we should use this to change the human genome at all unless absolutely vital for incurable diseases such as for types of cancer and type one diabetes. A question I have that Mr. Fuller said is where is the line between what we should and shouldn't cure? And should we even be toying with the idea of changing the human genome, even if it is to save tons of lives?
    .

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