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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.