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Genes on the Move

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Biology class is all about putting living things into categories, based on their differences. And creatures are different because they have different genes. But life wasn’t always like that. In this segment, Steve Strogatz, an applied mathematician at Cornell, tells us about a radical theory that says that way back at the beginning of life, 3 billion years ago, life was a big commune of gene swapping. Nigel Goldenfeld, one of the scientists who came up with this theory, says that the idea of different species, and consequently Darwinian evolution, simply didn’t apply for the first billion years of life on Earth. Then we follow the thread of an essay by Freeman Dyson called "Our Biotech Future." According to Dyson, the rise of biotechnology means that there will be an explosion of new life forms, that we will start moving genes from one creature to another. So we go to MIT, where Steven Payne and Reshma Shetty prove Dyson’s point by making stinky bacteria smell nice.


Nigel Goldenfeld, Steven Payne, Reshma Shetty and Steve Strogatz

Comments [22]

Scott Lankford from San Francisco

Although I'm a huge fan of RadioLab, I agree with several of the previous commenters that this particular show was, to put it bluntly, a frighteningly dangerous and arrogant hour-long commercial for an out-of-control biotech industry. Yes, there was, at last, a note of caution sounded (at the very end). But up to that point the juggernaut of cheerleading for biotech interventions and innovations seemed completely unbroken. For you both as hosts to say, at one point, "something about this makes me kinda nervous, but I can't really say what it is" (paraphrasing you here but closely) leaves me weaping over my laptop speakers in despair. Gentlemen, in case you have not noticed, we are living through the Sixth Extinction in the Anthropocene with Climate Chaos collapse unfolding before our eyes, but one would never know that listening to this glib and gutless report. How telling it is that the centerpiece biotech fantasy innovation you trumpeted as some kind of miracle breakthrough was the production of biodiesel on a vast scale that would percolate to the top of the ocean, then by some miracle damaging nothing in our (already rapidly acidifying, rapidly dying, coral-bleaching, fisheries collapsing, oil slicked and plastic garbage patch-choked) Oceans. Perhaps you might have mentioned, in passing, that burning this new fossil fuel would push us ever deeper into complete and utter climate collapse of the so-called Carbon Bubble even faster. But no. Just play a clever Bioengineering-is-Fun-for-Kiddies jingle that even Dr. Strangelove could have hummed with a smile. Say nothing about the vast literature documenting the ravages of invasive species globally already -- even apart from introducing entirely new organisms never seen on earth, with no connection to the biosphere, any existing ecosystem, the food web, or the vast and complex physiochemical cycles that sustain all life. Nothing on the patenting of life forms -- from seeds to genes -- to make plants and animals which have sustained humanity for millennia into profit centers for Monsanto. Nothing on the disease agents that could be unwittingly unleashed (although you rolled your radio eyes, briefly, at the idea that someone could deliberately design a biowarfare disease agent such a new strain of polio). In short, the depth and breadth of ecological ignorance that went into the production of this Radiolab episode was truly breathtaking. And bewildering -- given the intelligence care and you lavish on other episodes. At least there was a mention of the antibiotic crisis -- "What, me worry?" Honestly I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's classic satire sci-fi novel "Cat's Cradle" in which well-meaning scientists invent a product called Ice-9 in order to prevent the U.S. Marines from getting bogged down in the mud -- but which leads, of course, to the near instant frozen destruction of the planet as an unintended but utterly predictable side effect. "So it goes," as Vonnegut would say.

Mar. 05 2016 04:28 PM

Not a world I want to live in. Where we're just modifying ad hoc everything around us, raising creatures in minimally viable environments, and slaughtering them for use. Yes, this has already been going on for centuries but to act like our MIT students digging into the skulls of chimps, cats, etc., is some sort of pinnacle of human achievement is absolutely ridiculous.

Oct. 18 2015 10:40 AM
Alexandria Sims from earth

I found this NPR extremely fascinating. I love listening to these about genetics and bio-engineering particularly because I am about to enter into this field. The bio-engineer song was absolutely hilarious and I love those nerdy jokes that were played on in this episode. This was pretty biased at times but hey that's what makes it more personal and you can see how other people view these things. Biology is very vital in our day in age and I believe will be a significant factor is helping our changing world prosper in the near future. Without these new techniques and research being done we will never make any advances. It's not all about the money. It's about helping our world advance and help our society in the best ways we can.

Mar. 30 2015 10:24 PM

I found this episode, very difficult to listen to. the reporters kept bringing up their feelings and almost theological points of view, this topic may be difficult to discuss due to the possible repercussions but they it should be deconstructed and analyzed with an engineering perspective and modern ethical perspective.

Nov. 12 2014 02:34 PM
Henrik from Stockholm, Sweden

Where can I find that bio-engineer song. I feel a deep biological need to loop it furiously.

Also, thanks for a fantastic show. I love everything RadioLab.

Nov. 11 2011 07:09 AM
Bill from Oregon

I'm looking forward to seeing products that make your farts smell like wintergreen. :-)

Sep. 15 2011 02:36 PM
Sasha from Syracuse NY

I agree with the last guy they were talking to. I'm a little scared of what we could stumble across but should we just stop playing based on the off chance that we stumble onto something bad?

P.S. Shouldn't he have said Steve Jobs instead of Bill Gates? I laughed so hard when he said that about not sharing and then realized he didn't say Steve Jobs. Not as funny with Bill Gates.

Sep. 15 2011 02:01 PM
Daniel from San Diego, CA

The bioengineering song was great!

May. 27 2011 05:21 PM

wow, this is just weird. We shouldn't be doing this. This is unGodly. I wouldn't even be listening to this but its for school. Future Problem Solving.

Feb. 06 2011 03:14 PM
kiki lee from bEIJING cHINA


Jan. 07 2011 05:00 AM
WildlifeBio from Michigan

I am disgusted and terrified at the arrogance of the bioengineers in this story. As a wildlife biologist, I see the potential for these guys to end life as we know it on our planet. The world's fauna and flora are already battling for survival due to the pressures of humankind and the introduction of non-native invasive species into native ecosystems. Many of our native plants and animals could be wiped out by bioengineered species run amuck. Play with viruses and bacteria, and we humans could be the first of the casualties.

Apr. 30 2008 09:52 PM

Here's the bioengineers song, official with NPR:

Apr. 30 2008 07:23 PM
Laura Aaron from New Hampshire

I found it dangerous propaganda to pave the way in terms that don't challenge, debate, scrutinize, only smooth it over. Make NO mistake, these are students being USED in the agribusiness machinery to help profits...EVERYTHING is about money. Please don't insult discerning listeners that is about some greater good. Natural selection worked for millions of years, weeding out the weak, nourishing the strong, until the industrial age of greed, and dominating nature for profit. That , and that alone, IS what this so called science is about.Market share, invstment, and using students with industry funding that helps keep land grant and other universities in "business."

Apr. 29 2008 09:27 AM
Perry Lin from champaign Illinois

I am part of the first graduating class of bioengineers at the University of Illinois. Is there any way we could get a copy of this song to use at our graduation? (the bioengineer one)

Apr. 10 2008 01:37 AM

I also loved the song of bio-engineers song - if the artists are willing, it'd be fantastic if they made it available.

Apr. 09 2008 01:27 PM


I agree with you that we are like a living computer with the potential for 'widgets' that may be added. I hope the public continues to support the sciences and thank you for your program!


Apr. 06 2008 09:42 AM
Christopher from Detroit, MI

Not only was this entire episode captivating, but the bio-engineer song was a riot. If I wasn't driving at the time I would have written those lyrics down.

When this episode comes out for podcast you must add that song as an MP3!

Mar. 16 2008 10:58 PM
Dr. Joanne Neff from Queens, NY

I agree that this was absolutely enthralling, and I loved the way the music illustrated the concepts. I eagerly await your posting this program as a podcast.

Mar. 15 2008 10:34 AM
Jesse from Long Island, NY

This was a fabulous episode. The bio-engineer song was hysterical. I was laughing uncontrollably and dancing in my car--the people around me must have thought I was mad. If only they knew I was listening to NPR.

Mar. 14 2008 10:23 PM
aleeza from New York

Is there a way to get the bio-engineer song that is on this segment? It is great!

Mar. 14 2008 03:44 PM
Soren Wheeler

Seth ... The show will be available for download in a couple weeks. It doesn't get released on our website until after it plays on our home station, WNYC. But we'll put up a blog on the front page of the website as soon as it's available for download.

And if you do use it with your students, let us know what you did and how it went ... we're more likely to see your message and respond in a timely manner if you send your thoughts to

Thanks for listening.


Mar. 10 2008 01:17 PM
Seth Muir from Austin, MN

I caught a good portion of the "Genes on the Move" program on Thursday, March 6th at around 2:45pm Central Time listening to MPR and was immediately enthralled. I am teaching this very topic and these very ideas to my sophomores in Biology right now. Your information was very cutting edge and I would LOVE to have this audio program for my students to hear. Is there any way that I could get a copy of the program so my students could listen to and learn from this dynamic and tantalizing show?!

Mar. 07 2008 01:21 PM

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