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

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Did your personality determine whether you voted for Brexit? Research suggests so

The Online Privacy Foundation found Leave voters were significantly more likely to be authoritarian and conscientious. 

"Before referendum day, I said the winners would be those who told the most convincing lies," Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, wrote in these pages. "Leave did." The idea that those who voted for Brexit were somehow manipulated is widely accepted by the Remain camp. The Leave campaign, so the argument goes, played on voters' fears and exploited their low numeracy. And new research from the Online Privacy Foundation suggests this argument may, in part at least, be right. 

Over the last 18 months the organisation have researched differences in personality traits, levels of authoritarianism, numeracy, thinking styles and cognitive biases between EU referendum voters. The organisation conducted a series of studies, capturing over 11,000 responses to self-report psychology questionnaires and controlled experiments, with the final results scheduled to be presented at the International Conference on Political Psychology in Copenhagen in October 2017.

The researchers questioned voters using the "Five Factor Model" which consists of five broad personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. They also considered the disposition of authoritarianism (it is not considered a personality trait). Authoritarians have a more black and white view of the world around them, are more concerned with the upkeep of established societal traditions and have a tendency to be less accepting of outsiders. 

So what did they uncover? Participants expressing an intent to vote to leave the EU reported significantly higher levels of authoritarianism and conscientiousness, and lower levels of openness and neuroticism than voters expressing an intent to vote to remain. (Conscientiousness is associated with dependability, dutifulness, focus and adherence to societal norms in contrast to disorganisation, carelessness and impulsivity.)

Immigration in particular seems to have affected voting. While authoritarians were much more likely to vote Leave to begin with, those who were less authoritarian became increasingly likely to vote Leave if they expressed high levels of concern over immigration. These findings chime with research by the Professors Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay, which found that Americans became susceptible to "authoritarian thinking" when they perceived a grave threat to their safety. 

Then there's what you might call the £350m question - did Leave voters know what they were voting for? When the Online Privacy Foundation researchers compared Leave voters with Remain voters, they displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy, reasoning and appeared more impulsive. In all three areas, older voters performed significantly worse than young voters intending to vote the same way.

Even when voters were able to interpret statistics, their ability to do so could be overcome by partisanship. In one striking study, when voters were asked to interpret statistics about whether a skin cream increases or decreases a rash, they were able to interpret them correctly roughly 57 per cent of the time. But when voters were asked to interpret the same set of statistics, but told they were about whether immigration increases or decreases crime, something disturbing happened. 

If the statistics didn't support a voter's view, their ability to correctly interpret the numbers dropped, in some cases, by almost a half. 

Before Remoaners start to crow, this study is not an affirmation that "I'm smart, you're dumb". Further research could be done, for example, on the role of age and education (young graduates were far more likely to vote Remain). But in the meantime, there is a question that needs to be answered - are political campaigners deliberately exploiting these personality traits? 

Chris Sumner, from the Online Privacy Foundation, warns that in the era of Big Data, clues about our personalities are collected online: "In the era of Big Data, these clues are aggregated, transformed and sold by a burgeoning industry."

Indeed, Cambridge Analytica, a data company associated with the political right in the UK and US, states on its website that it can "more effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate". It will do so through a "blend of big data analytics and behavioural psychology". 

"Given the differences observed between Leave and Remain voters, and irrespective of which campaign, it is reasonable to hypothesize that industrial-scale psychographic profiling would have been a highly effective strategy," Sumner says. By identifying voters with different personalities and attitudes, such campaigns could target "the most persuadable voters with messages most likely to influence their vote". Indeed, in research yet to be published, the Online Privacy Foundation targeted groups with differing attitudes to civil liberties based on psychographic indicators associated with authoritarianism. The findings, says Sumner, illustrate "the ease with which individuals' inherent differences could be exploited". 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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