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

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Who will take responsibility for the rise in far-right terrorism?

Muslims are asked to condemn Islamist terrorism – should the mainstream right do the same when the attackers are white?

Following the attack on a Finsbury Park mosque, both Theresa May and Amber Rudd have issued statements and delivered speeches adopting hard lines against Islamophobia and right-wing extremism. May has gone so far as stating that Islamophobia itself is a form of extremism.

These pronouncements have drawn positive responses from prominent members of the Muslim community such as Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain. But it is important to question whether or not this change in rhetoric signifies a genuine change in government policy.

On the face of it, there are reasons for tentative optimism. The seriousness with which politicians took the Finsbury Park attack is a significant change. On this, the government is ahead of the media. While other terrorism attacks have been condemned as unjustifiable violence, some newspapers framed the Finsbury Park attack as a "revenge".

In fact, radicalisation is not a one-off event, but takes place in a web of institutional, social and ideological conditions. Furthermore this ignores a much longer story about the drip, drip, drip of Islamophobic or anti-Muslim discourse which permeates British society. 

The government has played a part in legitimising this anti-Muslim sentiment. Let’s not forget that Prevent has, since its inception, disproportionately targeted Muslims. The impression of an "us and them" mentality is only underlined by its secrecy. Moreover, the Prevent agenda has conflated a variety of other social policy concerns relating to gender equality, sexual violence, and unemployment as "extremism" issues. For example, Amber Rudd herself suggested that Islamophobia would decline if grooming stopped, which can not only be seen as victim-blaming, but further contributes to stereotyping Muslims as the enemy within.

So are promises to get serious about Islamophobia more empty words from the Prime Minister?

Think about timing. Far-right extremism has been deadly. Mohammad Saleem was brutally murdered in 2013 in Birmingham by a far right extremist. Mushin Ahmed was killed in 2015 (and was notably called a "groomer" by his attacker as his head was stamped on).

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist this time last year. This is not even mentioning individuals such as Ryan McGee, who made a nail bomb and was intent on murdering immigrants.

Just twelve days ago, the Prime Minister claimed that Britain was too tolerant of extremism, and she was right. Just not in the way she meant it.

Britain has indeed been too tolerant of extremism of the far right kind. This is a rising problem, not just in the UK, but also in Europe.

According to the defence and security think-tank RUSI, far right extremists make up 33 per cent of the threat, with Islamic extremism slightly more at 38 per cent. Furthermore, one in four referrals to Channel, the UK deradicalisation programme, are from the far right.

We cannot forget the government itself peddles the tropes of far right hate. Think of David Cameron referring to migrants as "swarms", May’s hostile environment policy, complete with "go home vans" driving around in multicultural areas, and the uncritical embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency by the Prime Minister. 

The Muslim community has been told many times to fight terrorism from within, but will there be a similar response to far right extremism? The ongoing rhetorical attacks on multiculturalism, and the longstanding association of Islamist radicalisation with a lack of integration, rather than religiously inspired political violence, make it difficult to see how real change will happen.

This would require deep soul-searching, followed by serious changes in public debates about policies relating to both immigration and extremism. Until that happens, May’s words on Islamophobia will be nothing more than political PR.

But this PR also has a more sinister element. Although no specific new counter-terrorism legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech, there was a promise that the government would review existing counter-terrorism laws, with a spokesman stressing that new legislation would be brought forward if needed.

May continues to lobby for increased executive powers to fight terrorism, which she has done since her time as home secretary. The policy on right-wing extremism is likely to follow that of Islamic extremism: it will focus only on ideology and it will ignore the wider context of structural racism and white privilege.

Ask yourselves, will white men ever be stopped and searched to the same extent as brown men? Will white women be seen as easy targets for violent attacks as Muslim women disproportionately are? Will far right extremists fear for their citizenship status?

And does the solution to extremism, in any form, truly lie in further oppressive legislation and more government power? We also need to be aware that powers extended to address extremism are likely to continue to have a disproportionate effect on minorities.

As long as there is no change in government policy, the status quo will continue to reinforce the same divisive narrative which is the bread and butter of every extremist group. After the Queen’s Speech, we continue to see no evidence of any serious attempt to reform policy and seriously address far right extremism. May’s empty words after the Finsbury Park attack represent nothing more than an opportunistic political move from a weakened Prime Minister who is desperate for approval – and for power.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.

Dr Naaz Rashid is a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourse (Policy Press 2016) about the UK government's engagement with Muslim women as part of its Prevent agenda. She can be followed on Twitter @naazrashid.

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