People inside a model of an intestine in Dresden, Germany. Photo: Getty
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Intelligent stomachs: what if your gut could remember what you had eaten?

Welcome to the world of synthetic biology.

Soon, there will be no denying that it was you who finished the milk. Biological engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have tweaked human gut microbes to work as a biochemical memory system. The bacteria are equipped with the equivalent of a computer’s circuit components to encode a record of what you consume into a bacterium’s DNA.

The research isn’t primarily aiming to deduce who ate what, however. The tweaked bacteria take chemical signals from their environment as an input to create outputs that are an indicator of health. They might turn on a fluorescent protein, say, so that laboratory analysis can detect problems.

Researchers suggest that their primary use will be in identifying (and perhaps even treating) bowel disease and colon cancer. It is likely that programmable bacteria will also find other applications. They are, in effect, an in-stomach sensor that could tell your body anything. “Stop eating this stuff – it’s killing you,” they might say.

The bacterium might simply let you know when you have had enough to eat. Or, if you eat the wrong stuff, it could release chemicals that act as painful stimuli. People with addictions could have bacterial reactions – such as nausea – triggered by the problem substance. The bugs could even be made to produce a pharmaceutical treatment in the body: when they detect a problem, they could feasibly synthesise a chemical solution.

It is unfortunate that the field of synthetic biology has adopted a name with negative connotations. The term “synthetic” can trigger concerns similar to those evoked by “genetic modification”. That’s why UK government funding for synthetic biology is now tied to responsible innovation that proceeds while taking public concerns into account. Though the field is led by US researchers, the UK comes in second, producing about a tenth of the world’s output in papers on synthetic biology.

As with genetic modification, there is little need to panic. Indeed, in some areas, synthetic biology should alleviate public concerns. In a paper published this month, German researchers point out that the tools of synthetic biology can do away with the need for transporting dangerous pathogens around the world – a risky practice. Instead, the pathogen’s genome can be sequenced where it is found and its genetic code emailed to labs for re-creation and analysis in a safe environment.

New advances in synthetic biology are arriving all the time. Last month, researchers at Harvard University unveiled a bacterium with a body clock. E coli doesn’t normally have any kind of circadian rhythm, but when the researchers implanted a protein-based clock mechanism from another organism, the E coli turned a fluorescent protein on and off in a regular, 24-hour cycle. It’s a relatively short step from there to having a gut bacterium that will create and release insulin-regulating drugs or other medicines on a daily schedule.

The new work brings this possibility closer. Although E coli is not a great human companion, the bacterium used in the MIT study is a standard, problem-free inhabitant of the human gut. So, synthetic biology has just got personal. It was only last year that Pamela Silver told Harvard Magazine, “Biological machines and biological computers – all of that should soon become a reality.” This is a field that is progressing rapidly. Steal food while you still can.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle