London bread shortage in the 1970s. Yeast genetics are at the vanguard of synthetic biology. Photo: Getty
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Welcome to the age of synthetic biology – it’s all about yeast

We don’t need evolution any more – we've outsourced the processes to ourselves.

Evolution’s retirement plan has been 3.6 billion years in the making. With the appearance of the modern human being, we now have an organism that can take over from natural processes and engineer biology in entirely new ways. Welcome to the age of synthetic biology.

The basic idea is that we take an organism – a bacterium, say – and re-engineer its genome so that it does something different. You might, for instance, make it ingest carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, process it and excrete crude oil.

That project is still under construction, but others, such as using synthesised DNA for data storage, have already been achieved. As evolution has proved, DNA is an extraordinarily stable medium that can preserve information for millions of years. In 2012, the Harvard geneticist George Church proved its potential by taking a book he had written, encoding it in a synthesised strand of DNA, and then making DNA sequencing machines read it back to him.

When we first started achieving such things it was costly and time-consuming and demanded extraordinary resources, such as those available to the millionaire biologist Craig Venter. Venter’s team spent most of the past two decades and tens of millions of dollars creating the first artificial organism, nicknamed “Synthia”. Using computer programs and robots that process the necessary chemicals, the team rebuilt the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides from scratch. They also inserted a few watermarks and puzzles into the DNA sequence, partly as an identifying measure for safety’s sake, but mostly as a publicity stunt.

What they didn’t do was redesign the genome to do anything interesting. When the synthetic genome was inserted into an eviscerated bacterial cell, the new organism behaved exactly the same as its natural counterpart. Nevertheless, that Synthia, as Venter put it at the press conference to announce the research in 2010, was “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer” made it a standout achievement.

Today, however, we have entered another era in synthetic biology and Venter faces stiff competition. The Steve Jobs to Venter’s Bill Gates is Jef Boeke, who researches yeast genetics at New York University.

Boeke wanted to redesign the yeast genome so that he could strip out various parts to see what they did. Because it took a private company a year to complete just a small part of the task, at a cost of $50,000, he realised he should go open-source. By teaching an undergraduate course on how to build a genome and teaming up with institutions all over the world, he has assembled a skilled workforce that, tinkering together, has made a synthetic chromosome for baker’s yeast.

The chromosome works just as well as the natural one and is the first step towards an entirely synthetic yeast. What’s more, the synthetic chromosome already does unusual things. The team can watch it shuffle its genes around, or even delete some. That way, they can identify how evolution over-engineered the organism, and also what variations might make it more useful or interesting.

One of the research partners was Imperial College London, where an international meeting on the future of synthetic biology took place this month. The science minister David Willetts gave the main speech, thanking evolution for its contributions and presenting it with a gold watch.

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 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

MAHMOUD RASLAN
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“I was frozen to the spot”: the psychological dangers of autoplay video

Videos that play automatically are now ubiquitous across social media, but the format leaves many viewers vulnerable to harm and distress.

Have you ever seen a dog being skinned alive? Witnessed a child, whimpering for his mother, getting beheaded? Have you watched a man, pinned down by two police offers, being shot multiple times in the chest and back?

A few years ago, if you answered “yes” to these questions, you might have been considered deranged. Possibly, you would have been on a list somewhere, being monitored for seeking out disturbing and illicit videos online. Now, you’re more than likely just a victim of social media’s ubiquitous autoplay function.

No one likes autoplay. Back in the Nineties, homepages often came with their own jaunty background tune that would automatically play, but it didn’t take long for this annoying and invasive practice to die out. Nowadays, when you click on a website plastered with noisy adverts and clips, you immediately click off it. But although users frequently bemoan them, autoplay videos remain a huge business model for social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

That’s fine, of course, when the autoplaying video in question is a bird’s-eye view tutorial on how to make nacho-chicken-pizza-fries (though even then, the videos might be gobbling up your data allowance without your consent). The problem arises when disturbing content is posted by users, and even media outlets, without any warnings or disclaimers.

“There are many incidents where the autoplay feature has affected me negatively,” says Sarah Turi, a 19-year-old college student from Boston, USA. Turi suffers from anxiety, and says that anything related to horror or gore can keep her awake for multiple nights on end. She has previously experienced anxiety attacks after viewing autoplaying horror movie trailers.

“Recently though, many of the videos that begin playing have to do with police brutality or terrorism or riots,” she says. “There was one incident where someone had shared a video of an execution. The video started playing, and before I could scroll away, I watched a man get beheaded by a terrorist organisation. It left me pretty shaken to say the least. I wasn't crying, but I was frozen to the spot. Even just thinking about it now leaves me feeling somewhat ill.”

Dr Dawn Branley, a health and social psychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use, tells me that autoplay videos on social media raise a variety of ethical concerns.

“Social media is more personal in nature compared to news channels and it is also often idly browsed with little conscious effort or concentration, and, as such, users may not be mentally prepared for the sudden appearance of a distressing video,” she says. “Suddenly witnessing a beheading, rape or graphic animal cruelty whilst scrolling through photos of your friends and family, holiday snaps, baby videos and wedding announcements may provide a real shock to the viewer.”

Branley says that, in her line of work, she has spoken to users who have experienced distress at photos of abuse and violence on social media, and speculates that autoplay video could only exacerbate this problem. She also notes that they can trigger vulnerable users, for example, people who suffer from eating disorders or PTSD.

Even those without pre-existing conditions can be negatively affected, however, as anyone who has seen disturbing footage before knows how it can pop into your head intrusively at any time and refuse to budge, remaining plastered to the edges of your skull. Even trolls are aware of this, as some tweet distressing footage at people, aware that it will autoplay.

In January 2015, Facebook responded to these issues by adding warnings to videos users flagged as graphic, meaning the footage wouldn’t autoplay and was preceded by a warning message. Viewers under 18 would be shielded from seeing violent content on their feeds. Yet just over seven months later, in August, autoplay meant thousands inadvertently watched footage of the shooting of TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

Remember when I said no one likes autoplay? That’s not strictly true. You have three seconds to scroll away from an autoplaying video before Facebook counts it as a view. In a world where Facebook, and the users of it, are desperate to tally up as many views as possible, autoplay is considered a smart business model.

“Autoplay video originated as a way to capture viewers’ attention and prevent them from ignoring or scrolling past website content,” says Branley. “The autoplaying nature of a video is likely to capture the viewers’ attention and may potentially be harder to resist watching – compared to a static image and text.”

For those profiting, it seems not to matter that some people who can’t look away are viewers like Turi, frozen on the spot by distress.

Because of how profitable autoplay is, then, many news outlets continue to upload sensitive footage that might better be suited on their website – a consensual click away. They might add their own pre-roll warnings, but Branley notes that these are easy to miss if the video is autoplaying. If you were online yesterday, you might have seen this in action, as footage of a boy – or rather the boy – in an ambulance, distressed and bloodied, autoplayed repeatedly across social media.

News outlets have been called out for this before, and have admitted their mistakes. In August 2015, New York Times social media editor Cynthia Collins told The Media Briefing that she wishes she’d added a warning to a video of men being shot and killed at sea. After backlash from their audience, she said:

“If we could do it all again . . . there would have been a discussion about whether or not we should upload the video at all. But if we decided to upload the video I absolutely would have added a warning.”

The video ended up on the website, and viewers had to click through a handful of warnings before watching it. News footage has always had the potential to alarm and distress, but at least in the past viewers had a choice about whether they watched it. Although many news outlets have guidelines on graphic content (such as, for example, the famous breakfast test), these haven’t always been updated for social media.

It’s important that users are made aware of potential solutions to this problem,” says Branley, noting that Facebook and Twitter include options in their settings to turn off autoplay, and your browser or phone may also allow you to disable all autoplay. “However, that does not detract from the moral obligation that internet platforms should consider when introducing autoplay.

“I would suggest that an ‘opt-in’ approach (where users are required to switch on the autoplay setting if they wish to enable this function) would be much more appropriate than the current ‘opt-out’ approach, which requires users to find the settings to switch off autoplay if they do not wish to use it.”  

This seems like the simplest and fairest answer. It’s hard to argue that distressing videos shouldn’t be posted on Facebook – last month, the footage of Philando Castile’s shooting dramatically shed light on police brutality – but it seems only natural that viewers should have a choice about what they watch.

“It is possible that autoplay videos could be used to raise awareness of sensitive topics and/or to grab users' attention for positive reasons like charity campaigns,” says Branley. “However, it is a fine line between raising awareness and distressing the viewer and what one viewer finds acceptable, another may find highly distressing. Therefore, care and consideration is required.”

Right now, both care and consideration are lacking. In its current iteration, autoplay is like Anthony Burgess’ Ludovico technique – pinning our eyes open and forcing us to watch violence and horror without our consent. There are things I know I never want to watch – the curb stomp in American History X, an Armenian weightlifter dislocating their elbow during the Olympics – that could be sprung upon me at any time. Why? Because someone, somewhere, profits.

“I don't think autoplay is necessary in Facebook,” says Turi. “I think that people should decide for themselves whether or not they want to watch something. And yes, I think that it should be banned.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.