Shakespeare speaks on Biotechnology

(A presentation by Michael Goodin, Ph.D.)

(Each thumbnail is a link to a downloadable 300-400k jpeg image file)

Year 1611 – Shakespeare retires from writing plays. What if we had the opportunity to discuss with Shakespeare the pros and cons of biotechnology?

Slide 1: Prologue.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Henry V.

Slide 2: The year, dear gentles is 1611 – Master Shakespeare’s works are complete and in his short retirement he contemplates this new technology of genetic engineering…
“GE or not GE – That is the choice” –

Is that really the choice? The current debate on genetically engineered foods would certainly seem an “all or none” argument.

Slide 3: “ I care not what, so it be wholesome food” – Katherina – Taming of the Shrew 4.3

Let us set ourselves a common goal. Be you an advocate of biotech, organic farming or conventional agriculture our goal should be a safe, abundant and sustainable food supply. Should we not utilize the benefits of all technologies to ensure this supply?

Slide 4: food supply (color) Picture showing selection of agricultural produce. There is the contention that if we genetically engineer our food we will at the very least….

Slide 5: food supply (black and white)…cause it to loose some aspect of wholesomeness. At the very worst…

Slide 6: …Genetic Engineering of food will have dire consequences for the environment and health effects. “They’re half fish, half-flesh: a plague on them” Perricles of Tyre 2.1 – (Picture of a tomato with a fish through it).

Slide 7: Why are genetically engineered crops so feared?

KING HENRY VIII 1:2 Things done well,
And with a care, exempt themselves from fear;
Things done without example, in their issue
Are to be fear'd.

It may be argued that the introduction of genetically engineered foods has not been done well. Let me join with Shakespeare “for the public good” to explain this technology and how it might be used in association with other existing technologies.

Slide 8: CORIOLANUS 2.1 “These three lead on this preparation.” DNA/RNA/Protein. In order to understand biotechnology we must first understand some fundamental basics of molecular biology and genetics.

DNA – ;“KING HENRY VI 3.2 According as I gave directions"; DNA is the repository of all of our genetic information – the stuff that genes are made off. Being incredibly precious, the information stored in DNA is used directly but is first copied into a chemically related “cousin”.

RNA – “KING HENRY VI 1.1 Come cousin, you shall be the messenger.” RNA carries the instructions encoded by DNA to the cytoplasm of cells.

Protein – “HAMLET 2.2 There are the players” The message of RNA is translated into proteins which are the workers of the cell.

Slide 9: "King John 4:2 Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
or add another hue
Unto the rainbow
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess". -
Unweaving the rainbow

Now that we understand what DNA is we must next consider two opinions of DNA. There are those that believe that if DNA is passed through the prism of science and technology that we will find the answers to all our problems. Shakespeare offers an alternative view of “unweaving the rainbow.” [above]. Whichever view is correct, it is appropriate to look at how we have utilized DNA to serve our needs.

Slide 10: Let us review the basics of genetics. To do this we need look no further than the complete works of Shakespeare.
Complete works = Genome; the entire genetic complement of a cell
Volumes = Chromosome; just as the complete works are separated into the Histories, Tragedies, Comedies and Sonnets the genome is sub-divided into chomosomes.
Each page of each volume = gene; contains instructions of how play/protein is to be made.
Language of Shakespeare has 26 letters; Language of Genes 4 letters
Mutation: changing the meaning of a genetic message “once more unto the breach ===> once more unto the beach” – Henry V 3.1

Effect of mutation (Slides 10-13)

Slide 11: Slide showing effect of mutation: lemon/Bhudda’s hand lemon - picture also has books by Watson, Crick and Darwin.

Slide 12: Picture of Solanaceous crops; potato, peppers, tomato, eggplant – diversification of food supply via mutation over time.

Slide 13: Picture of teosinte/corn. – improvement of single crop by mutation/selection. Modern corn, at first glance, appears to have little in common with teosinte or ancestral corn that we began cultivating an estimated ten thousand years ago.

Slide 14: Picture of ancient and modern wheat.
Wheat at time of Shakespeare; tall, difficult to harvest, susceptible to strong winds
Modern wheats: dwarf and super-dwarf wheats.

When we find genes useful for agriculture how do we integrate them into the cultivars we use?

Slide 15: “So leaves me to consider what is breeding” – The winter’s tale 1.2
How have beneficial traits been incorporated into our food supply? – classical breeding
Relies upon crossing sexually compatible varieties each of which posses attributes that we would like to combine into a single variety. In keeping with our book analogy breeding involves shuffling pages of genetic information and then selecting those varieties containing the traits that we want. How is this different from genetic engineering?

Slide 16: “So leaves me to consider what is genetic engineering” – The winter’s tale 1.2
Similarity with traditional breeding: traits (genes) of interest will be transferred from one source to another.
Major differences: Trait (i.e. gene) must be physically isolated. Source of the gene of interest can be any organism. Note that in classical breeding we do not always know the function of the genes that we are working with. Many of the agriculturally important genes were used for decades/centuries without ever being characterized biochemicaly. Genetic engineering breaks the species barrier.

Slide 17: “Tree of life
Take those genes (pages in book analogy) which would benefit agriculture and put them into various crops. Genes can be transferred at will from any branch of the tree of life into another. For example, we can take a gene out of a bacterium and place it into a plant to give the plant resistance to insects. Alternatively, we can take a human gene such as insulin and express it in bacteria or yeast to make recombinant insulin. In addition to moving genes we are gaining an understanding of all the genes in the genomes of many different species

Slide 18: “In nature's infinite book of secrecy
A little I can read.” Antony and Cleoplatra 1.2

Genome sequencing information/Number of genomes sequenced.
Genome sequencing projects provide the source of material which can be “read” to find new genes for agriculture, pharmaceuticals etc.

Slide 19: Given the sheer power of genetic engineering as has been described, a cautionary word is in order before we transfer genes from one organism to another without thought. “I would you would make use of that good wisdom” – King Lear 1.4

Use the technology where and when appropriate. Evaluate the benefits/risks of the technology on a case-by-case basis. Consider what genes are being transferred to what organism and how will the genetically engineered organism be used. Let us consider where the use of biotechnology is appropriate. Let us consider some applications of genetic engineering

Slide 20 “Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.” - Romeo and Juliet 2.3
Genetic engineering is playing a greater and greater role in the development of strategies to prevent damage to our crops by pests and pathogens.

Slide 21: transfer of Bt gene into rice for resistance for resistance to stem borer.

Slide 22: Papaya virus resistance. Papaya plants expressing one viral gene (the coat protein) are resistant to infection by Papaya ringspot virus. This is a strategy used to protect many important crops such as melons, potatoes, tomatoes. Keep in mind that viruses are a common part of our “food supply” since viruses frequently infect the plants that we eat. There is no evidence that consumption of plant viral proteins and nucleic acids are linked to adverse health effects.

Slide 23: Potential risks associated with genetically engineering of food: Potential for allergens: there are legitimate concerns.

Slide 24: Brazil nut picture: Transfer of Brazil nut gene into soybean for the improvement of nutritional quality could have led to the production of soybeans containing a Brazil nut allergen. The transgenic soybeans were found to be allergenic during development and were therefore never commercialized. This underscores the need to characterize the each gene that is being used to genetically engineer plants. Also need for effective regulatory agencies.


Tue, Jul 3, 2001