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A big danger in genetic manipulation: Shiga toxin and E. Coli


Cloning viruses to make them safer to work with
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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One of the things I did was to write two papers which have... which my... only of my papers published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. They published as parts of the report of GMAG [Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group]. And one paper is I think a very interesting paper because it is the paper that analyses theoretical pathogenesis, that's its subject. It says: ‘Why don't we try and make an estimate, a real estimate of potent... of conjectural danger?’. And get some numbers and with these numbers we can then begin to compare. And that system is still being used, because once you did this in a quantitative way, I mean, everything came out very simply. You got a lot of numbers, big numbers, you then divided them by a number almost as big, and so you got the... you got huge differentials of safety. And ultimately we changed the system here, and I think since that time experimentation in genetic manipulation is... is quite... it's quite acceptable now, and of course nothing has happened, nothing dangerous has happened. Because one of the things that in fact has... has happened as time has... time always brings rewards... I made a strong argument that the best case to take a dangerous virus is to take it and clone it; that would make it safe. And put it in E. coli [Escherichia coli], because it can't get around and infect people this way. And in fact, if you're worried, you put... you put... divide it into three pieces and put them in three different E. coli. And that I would prefer to work with clones of this virus rather than with the virus themselves. And I think that were it not for getting people to think sensibly about this we could not have done the work so rapidly. That happened with the AIDs virus. I mean, this technology has been invaluable. The virus was cloned, people could work with the DNA, they could sequence it, they could characterise it very rapidly. If you look at all the history of other infectious agents, we accomplished worldwide in a year what might have taken 20 years to do with standard methods. So I think that was a very good lesson.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Escherichia coli, Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group

Duration: 2 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010