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Evolution, the double helix, IVF, DNA fingerprinting and more…

My Times column on Britain’s strong track record in the life sciences:


Mitochondrial replacement therapy (misleadingly termed three-parent babies) is to be permitted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. I’m glad. The scientists who have developed the technique, Sir Doug Turnbull, Mary Herbert and others, are friends; the work has been done partly on the premises of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle, of which I am honorary president; I took part in the parliamentary debate last year on whether it was ethical and safe; and I have met some of the families suffering from the dreadful diseases it could cure. So I have emotional skin in the game.

I also feel a twinge of old-fashioned national pride. Yet again, Britain is pioneering a biomedical innovation. For a country with only 1 per cent of the world’s population, it is notable how many of the great discoveries and inventions in life science have happened here. That’s not nearly as true in physics or chemistry. Or philosophy, music, painting and literature.

In vitro fertilisation itself was invented in Manchester in 1978 by Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe; the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, is British. About five million couples worldwide have now had the happy experience of overcoming infertility thanks to something that started here. Other reproductive breakthroughs also happened in Britain. Cloning of frogs was invented in Cambridge by Sir John Gurdon in the late 1950s; cloning of mammals (Dolly the sheep) was invented in Edinburgh by Sir Ian Wilmut in the 1990s.

The next most widely used biological gift to society is also a wholly British invention. DNA fingerprinting, which has convicted countless criminals and, more importantly, exonerated countless wrongly charged people, was invented in Leicester by Sir Alec Jeffreys. He first used it to help the local police clear the name of a man accused of rape and murder, and then in 1988 to convict a different man, Colin Pitchfork, for the same crime.

The list of British bio-firsts includes: tumour suppressor genes; the cell cycle; programmed cell death; monoclonal antibodies; the Krebs cycle; penicillin; Sir Ronald Ross and the role of mosquitoes in malaria; Edward Jenner and vaccination; Robert Hooke and the cell; William Harvey and the circulation of the blood.

And, of course, the twin summits of biology that tower above all such foothills: natural selection (Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace) and the structure of DNA (James Watson and Francis Crick). The vital technologies for sequencing both DNA and proteins were invented in Cambridge by Fred Sanger. When the human genome was sequenced, and we became the first species to read our own recipe in three billion years, the biggest single contribution — about 40 per cent of the work — was done at Britain’s Sanger Institute.

Of course, we missed out on many other discoveries: those of Louis Pasteur, Gregor Mendel, Oswald Avery and many more. America invented genetic engineering in the 1970s. The new CRISPR gene-editing technology is a Japanese-Dutch-Russian-American-French-Chinese invention, without a Brit in sight. Notice too that some of those who made great discoveries here were not British. Some, like Sir Hans Krebs, were refugees from Nazi Germany.

My point is not jingoism, but that we should strive to understand why one foggy island has contributed so much to the life sciences so we can make sure it continues. It may be to do with our tradition of empiricism. In biology you make progress by examining nature with an open mind, not by theorising abstractly.

Perhaps, too, British society and the Anglican church were unusually tolerant of the paganism that biology spawns. Think of the thousands of clergymen carefully recording the natural history of their parishes for decades: Gilbert White is just the best known; Darwin’s mentor John Stevens Henslow was another. Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681), wife of the regicide Colonel Hutchinson, wrote a complete verse translation of Lucretius’s atheistic and naturalistic poem De Rerum Natura. Richard Dawkins is very British.

It is hard to imagine IVF or mitochondrial replacement being pursued so enthusiastically in Catholic countries even today. Opposition to mitochondrial therapy in parliament was largely from Catholics and we were deluged with emails from some place in Rome. Americans have been unable to reach the pragmatic compromise on reproductive technologies that Dame Mary Warnock gave us here — and 40 per cent refuse to accept evolution.

These things have a tendency to be self-fulfilling, but can British bio-triumphs really continue? I think so. In recent weeks I have been briefed on two British breakthroughs that could be of enormous significance. I am sure there are others.

One is a potential solution to the crisis of antimicrobial resistance, which is killing 700,000 people a year worldwide, and has been the subject of international debate. A start-up called Matoke Holdings has a product called Surgihoney, whose trick is to generate reactive oxygen (the same chemistry as in many disinfectants) but slowly, continuously and in the right place.

Early results with Surgihoney and other delivery mechanisms show that this can be effective against bacteria in circumstances where antibiotics don’t work well: recurrent sinusitis, chronic respiratory conditions, cystic fibrosis, chronic wounds and burns, surgical prophylaxis and recurrent urinary infection caused by multi-resistant bugs. A doctor friend and expert on antimicrobial resistance, Matthew Dryden, who has tested it, calls it a potential game changer.

The other breakthrough, called N-Fix, comes from a company called Azotic Technologies, which has commercialised an invention by Ted Cocking at Nottingham university. The company claims that it is the “most important breakthrough in agriculture since the 1890s”. A bacterium discovered in sugar cane that is capable of fixing nitrogen directly from the air has now been persuaded to live inside the cells of many crops. Early results show that it increases yields dramatically, either replacing or enhancing the effect of synthetic fertiliser. For example, in maize, N-Fix achieves the same yield with only 25 per cent of the fertiliser application. It thereby holds the promise of helping poor farmers as much as rich ones, of reducing the land needed to feed the world, and of cutting pollution from fertiliser run-off.

Life science mostly generates good news. There is no field of human endeavour in which discoveries are so one-sidedly beneficial. The efforts of doomsters to find threat, risk and pain in genetics, and life sciences generally, have been for the most part a dismal failure. (Eugenics was based on outdated, pre-Mendelian misunderstandings of genetics and heredity.) And a surprising amount of it happens right here.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times