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The Closed Loop

6 June 2014

STS Teaching Fellow Stephanie Eichberg reflects on an Innovative play staged by UCL Biosciences students.

This innovative play, staged at Camden People's Theatre by UCL Bioscience student Yichao Yu, took its audience on a wild trip into the future of biotechnology: It is the 23rd century and life on earth has undergone two genetically engineered 'Green Revolutions', producing humans and animals with the ability to photosynthesise. Photosynthesis is the oldest and the most successful way of generating life and energy, and if you think that this tale is a harebrained construction of the Biopunk-Scifi genre, think twice: at present researchers at the Harvard Medical School and elsewhere are about to push that concept into reality. The focus is on cyanobacteria, a microbe responsible for almost 50 percent of the earth’s photosynthetic ability; harnessing the organism's photosynthetic powers to generate fuel and other valuable chemicals, cyanobacteria have been injected into zebra fish embryos with astonishing results.... http://www.technologyreview.com/view/418802/photosynthetic-fish-and-other-oddities/

The closed loop, however, is also a tale of caution, raising important ethical questions about the interplay of science and society: what does it mean to be human? Should we be allowed to create a new species? Is society ready and willing to embrace and live with a scientifically created new breed of people?

In the play, the first stage of the Green Revolution saw the birth of genetically modified people sprouting green wings (enhancing the body's surface for photosynthesising); in the second stage, the ability to photosynthesise spread over the whole body producing a new type of humans: the Green People who now live in the forests of Southern China. Although the Green People are able to generate life and energy outside technology and without worry about resources or hunger ("ancient life minus the ancient struggle"), the losers of these biotechnological experiments are the first-stage winged people - not fully human, not fully green - who are rejected by society. Even as many of them opt for the surgical removal of their wings to be able to live inconspicuously among ordinary humans ('dewinged existence'), their offspring would inevitably carry the 'wing genes' into the next generation.

The main message for me while watching the play was this: while biotechnology might come up with solutions to alleviate world hunger and the shortage of resources once and for all, an argument brought forward in the play to justify the Green Revolution, projecting our hopes of the future onto science without considering the consequences can be a dangerous thing indeed.

To find out more about the play visit the Facebook page that Yichao Yu has put up: https://www.facebook.com/the.closed.loop

Page last modified on 06 jun 14 12:00 by Jo E Pearson


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