Oct 27, 2009

Frankenstein and Leviathan, Monsters New and Old

Chuck MisslerBy Chuck Missler

Frankenstein: These days, genetic engineering has become child's play. At least, the dicing and splicing of genes is no longer confined to the labs of silver-haired geneticists. Halloween weekend, 103 teams of college kids will gather to show off their genetically modified creations at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. The annual contest encourages students to mix and match genetic parts in order to program spectacular results from run-of-the-mill organisms.

There will be no lack of innovative bacterial machines at the competition. This year, the University of Virginia's Frankenstein is a batch of arsenic-absorbing E. coli. This “arsenic sponge" was designed to clean contaminated water in places like Bangladesh, where groundwater is often poisoned by arsenic. City College of San Francisco has developed a bacteria-powered battery. At last year's competition, a team from Slovenia developed a vaccine for Helicobacter pylori, a wide-spread bacteria that causes ulcers.

While not really child's play, genetic engineering at this level can be considered a scholarly game of Legos. In fact, students can order DNA pieces online from MIT's Registry of Standard Biological Parts. The chunks of DNA, called BioBricks, have been catalogued and their functions defined so that students can take this BioBrick and that BioBrick and build new little creatures for themselves.

This wonton genetic mixing has some people concerned about the potentially dangerous chimeras that could be put together, and others argue that folks shouldn't be playing God with the genes of bacteria or anything else.

Randy Rettberg, director of the IGEM competition, has dismissed most concerns people have. He doesn't see the students' experiments as dangerous, likening the strains of bacteria and DNA they are working with to flour and water. Rettberg also shrugged off the moral implications.

"This question of these things are made by God, and therefore how should we be dealing with those things because they were made by God - that's just beyond my job description," he said.
Perhaps students are using harmless strains right now for this competition, but as the old adage says, familiarity breeds contempt. Will these students work carefully in their future research, stepping carefully with awe and respect for the genetic code, or will they treat genetic engineering like a game – with potentially catastrophic results?
"I like messing with genes and genomes, throwing things in and out and manipulating all that stuff," said, Chris Von Dollen, a junior at Johns Hopkins University. "We've already controlled so many other things in nature that it's become unnatural. To me, it's just one more step in the process."
Leviathan: While American students fiddle with bacteria, the skull of a much older monster has recently made news across the sea in southwestern England. The pliosaur was a sea-dwelling creature so magnificently huge, it could have gobbled up a T-Rex for breakfast and sunk a wooden ship with a nicely placed slap. The eight-foot-long skull of one of these massive creatures was uncovered in Dorset and for four years has been painstakingly uncovered according to The Times. If the rest of the body is buried in the same cliff, experts estimate its full length would have been approximately 54 feet. The pliosaur's huge, razor-toothed jaws would have been a fearful thing to meet in the middle of the wide ocean, and the creature brings to mind ancient stories of sea monsters like Leviathan and the kraken.
"They had massive big muscles on their necks, and you would have imagined that they would bite into the animal and get a good grip, and then with these massive neck muscles they probably would have thrashed the animals around and torn chunks off," said David Martill, a palaeontologist from the University of Portsmouth. "It would have been a bit of a blood bath."
Plesiosaur expert Richard Forrest told the BBC,
"What is fantastic about this new skull, not only is it absolutely enormous, but it is pretty much in 3D and not much distorted."
The Dorset County Museum has purchased the skull for £20,000 and plans to clean it up and put it on display in about half a year.

Related Links

New Works Of Science Nonfiction - The Washington Post
Bacteria Harnessed To Power Micro-Motor - Singularity Hub (blog)
How should a Christian view genetic engineering? - GotQuestions.org
Skull Of Huge Sea Monster That Could Have Eaten T. Rex Found In Dorset - Times Online
Dinosaurs and the Bible - Answers in Genesis (Ken Ham)
Learn the Bible in 24 Hours - Dr. Chuck Missler (Book)