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Intelligent Design?

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Are living things really just machines made of little genetic parts? Are genes just like little software programs that we can plug into living things? That’s how synthetic biologists think about life. Brian Baynes gives us a tour of his company, Codon Devices, where they make and sell genes. Then we visit Harvard geneticist George Church, who is using synthetic genes to make bacteria that burp diesel fuel. Robert talks to biotechnology pioneer Craig Venter about just how far synthetic biology might go and about whether humans might someday be able to make a living thing... from scratch. But what happens when the new life forms we make get put into the world? Could they create as many problems as they solve? Jad and Robert, with help from Nigel Goldenfeld and Steve Strogatz, discuss what to do when faced with the the risks, and the benefits, of synthetic biology.

The "Anthem of the Bioegineers" was made especially for Radiolab by the Mammalian Pituitary Band. Their very talented and somewhat whacked members include:

Shane Winter - Composer / Arranger
Josh Kurz - Lyrics/Vocals
Jason Major - Vocals
Wendy Roderweiss - Vocals
Natasha Bayus - 100% Real french horn


Mammalian Pituitary Band, Brian Baynes, George Church, Nigel Goldenfeld, Steve Strogatz and Craig Venter

Comments [21]

Peleg from Israel

If it's pretty easy to make E-coli smell like mint or banana, is it possible to make people's mouth bacteria naturally emit a similar scent? I mean, when we wake up in the morning, it could be much nicer…

Oct. 27 2016 03:25 AM

I share Robert's horror of these bioengineers for the most part. The hubris of science has and will continue to create catastrophic problems, even while we have 8 hour erections. However, I slightly disagree with his assessment that evolution has taken billions of years and we are somehow ruining it. We can't. There is no "outside" of evolution or nature or the world. Whatever horrible world we create it will continue to change and whether we're here or not is really irrelevant.

Oct. 18 2015 10:55 AM
Kelley Hestmark

Is it just me or is the Human blood in a cow not terrifying? Or a human kidney in a mouse? How far will humans go? I am all for medical advancements, but organ harvesting from animals seems immoral. Also, what will happen to the cow meat once they have been slaughtered for their blood? Will we be eating cow meat with human hemoglobin? I sure hope not! A little too cannibalistic for me. I think we are playing with things that we do not yet have the technology or information to do so safely.

Feb. 03 2014 03:24 PM

the science of life is to explore and better our understanding of life, our curiosity urge us to explore to the end of a mystery. We are greedy, Consequence comes naturally, however if you believe we shouldn't intervene, let me tell you something, 90% of the food you eat is already genetically modified, we have altered life, why? more food, higher quality.

what is life? its DNA, data, like our computers.
personality? bla, you are just a collection of memories, your action came from experience. without those electric information stored inside of your brain. you are just a shell.
"Life" in my opinion CAN BE created. someday we will create life. and right now THEY ARE curing Alzheimer's disease. consequences comes when one make dum mistakes. so please those who are listening and commenting, don't look at it from a bible view or a non scientific view.

how far is humanity in biology? we can clone a animal (low success), we modified genetic virus, we can "splice genes" and engineer babies already is possible. we in other words, have the ability to change the blue print of life. however, we CANNOT create life. not yet XD not far though

Nov. 29 2012 11:15 AM
Marcia Bollea from La Vegas, NV

The arrogance of these people. Have they never heard of unintended consequences? If these guys are so, so smart and feel they are entitled to intervene in something they really don't understand, then why not genetic engineer Alzheimer's disease, or Parkinson's disease or Huntington's Correa out of existence?

Feb. 07 2012 11:16 PM

Kinda makes me sad that Dynogen Pharma and Codon Devices went under. So much promise.

Nov. 15 2011 07:46 PM
Lizzy from Norwich, England

I just listened to the Stayin' Alive podcast again and realized I had never heard the referenced episode with George Church. I've been subscribing to the podcast for years and realized I didn't have the specified episode. Is there a podcast for it or some other means by which I can listen to this episode? I'm really interested in genetics and bioengineering and love the show so I really would like to hear it!

Mar. 02 2010 01:30 PM
Pete Masters from London

Hello Radiolab.

Really enjoying the show...

I want to see what a gene code looks like in letters as mentioned on your show... Can you send me the link to the 'cut and paste' website?



Jun. 11 2008 05:16 AM
Jason Johnson from Louisville, KY

Oh, and great show. So great that I'm having my biology students do an extra credit assignment on it in which they create a visual companion to the show using images of their choice in slideshow format. I really enjoy the pop sensibilities of the show (with the various sound effects and clever editting to keep it from being too dry) for the ADD generation.

May. 06 2008 04:17 PM
Jason Johnson from Louisville, KY

The show and the comments here make great points about the power and risks of biotechnology. One of the unique risks of biotech over say, the development of the automobile, is that engineered organsisms can self replicate and mutate in the wild (show me the car that can go native and muck up an ecosystem and I will give cars more gravity). We truly don't know the impacts of our actions. But at the same time, we are having far more profound impacts through actions like inadvertently introducing species to new habitats. In many cases environments are now overwhelmingly dominated by species that didn't evolve there. Is this any less unatural than engineered organisms escaping?
We also should appreciate that in many cases some of these bioengineered organisms hold great promise. They may be simply too tantalizing not to pursue.
What truly scares me is the democratization of technology. As bioengineering becomes more available to the masses it may well become an option for a rogue nation to use rudimentarily trained microbiologists to weaponize microorganisms with disasterous consequences. It sounds like sci-fi, but its closer than you think...

May. 06 2008 04:14 PM
Laura Aaron from New Hampshire

As I will continue to argue, looking at man's contributon so far to the world and nature, we are an experiment in failure.Our meddling has only paved the way for economic interests to find more ways to do what we are born in this world to do, make MONEY and be PRODUCTVE, like the cattle and pigs humans have wrongly reduced to commodities. We even created the "Hoyer Lift" to help pick us up when we are "downed" humans, like tractors lift downed cows who are victims of the very same reductionist , government sponsored depravity of ethics.
If people want purity and to live a sacred life, this initiative stinks of what was once praticed in Germany by Dr. Mengela.
If what is manifest today is the result of "intelligent" design. we are in deep, deep, E-coli.

Apr. 29 2008 09:38 AM
Rick Westerman from Purdue University

A rather biased show that frankly showcased bioengineering in a rather negative light. Of course we need to be concerned and, as much as possible, be cautious. But mankind has been tinkering -- and making mistakes but also large strides -- not only in biology but in all sort of other disciplines for centuries without knowing the heck what we are doing nor where we are going. Most of the time we have not regretted the consequences.

Look back 150+ years ago when steam power first came out. Or 100+ years ago when automobiles came out. Each invention has had drawbacks that were never foreseen. Each invention brought a lot of worry to the population. But each invention brought something positive to us.

The age of bioengineering is indeed a frightening one. Ditto with nanotechnology; atomic power; computers or the now-tried-and-true machine age. We as humans will never be able to foresee all the hazards. But I'll agree with Church and the rest that biotechnology also offers great promise to make our lives easier and more fruitful. 50 years from now humans will look back on the current age and think that our worries were well founded but also rather quaint.

Apr. 25 2008 05:24 PM
Jen from Richmond, VA

I think one of the most important questions we should be asking is "Is Codon Devices offering stock shares?" Ha. Kidding. Also not kidding.

Apr. 16 2008 10:00 PM
Phil Endliss from Menlo Park,CA

I agree with Robert that we need to be careful when designing new beings. Imagine what could happen if a rogue government with this technology decided that all children born from now on in their society must have certain physical traits such as blond hair and blue eyes. Or maybe they'd prefer to program the mental abilities of the populace. You should consider a follow-up show with comments from ethicists on this new technology as it applies to humans, not microbes.

Apr. 14 2008 01:04 PM
msimcic from Bainbridge, Ohio

Radiolab aired 4/4/08 on NPR, Cleveland area.
Show was so candid, I thought it was sci-fi at first.

Interviews with bio engineers validated the concepts. Good point about taking time to research outcomes of invention.
How long did it take for life forms (we have now) to evolve? And, isn't bacterial and viral evolution quicker because of quantum reproducibility. Perhaps ethical concerns or at the very least a cautionary tale....

Apr. 05 2008 12:14 AM
M.Mulligan from Denver

Just caught the last part of show#404 on CPR.
Very interesting, especially the conflict between go ahead bio engineering crowd and the more conservative field ecologists, biologists, who may say, hey, we are still learning how species interelate. Should we just go ahead an introduce new life forms into the web of life, just because we can. Weighty questions, and what if climate change creates niches we didn't forsee, for these new creatures to expand into.
Made me think of Maragret Atwoods 2005 fictional
work "Oryx and Crake" a cautionary tale of a world where we did because we could, some with good motives and it didn't turn out so well.

Mar. 23 2008 07:25 PM
jshine from Rochester, MN

In response to "Jason 'Great White' (Shark)":

[quote]I would even go further and make it illegal to change any living being's genes with another living being's genes. [/quote]

Speaking as a scientist involved in this field, you should learn more before passing judgement. If what you propose came to pass, then everyone who requires insulin would either have to die, or we would have to extract massive quantities of it from animals. Insulin is currently made by inserting a human gene into bacteria, and then using those bacteria to culture insulin. ...and that's just one example of a great many.

Mar. 06 2008 08:34 PM
Wayne Watson from Nevada City, CA

I missed Neil De Grasse Tyson when he spoke in San Francisco at City Arts & Lectures. KQED-FM tells me his talk will be broadcast on 3/14 by you, but I don't see it. What are the particulars on it?

Ah, my mistake. They gave me your 3/14/08 url, but your broadcast isn't until Saturday May 10th at 8 pm. Well, if I miss their 5/4 broadcast, maybe I'll still use it. I can always, apparently, use you for a backup on the SF lectures.

Mar. 02 2008 08:34 PM
Jason 'Great White' (Shark)- Owner of The GW'sFBA from Community of Redland, NW of Homestead, Fl.

I could not agree more with the end of the show. I would even go further and make it illegal to change any living being's genes with another living being's genes. Being a Vegan and Being (Animal, fish and etc) Rights Supporter, I draw the line at the size, processes of surivival The Beings use and alter genes to only save beings from mass deaths. Thus, some microbiological beings I feel must be genetically altered to save the non-microbiological beings and even us humans.

It is really scarey that there is not even comments with the same concern, let alone a debate of it. It is like people did not get the point of the end of the show or maybe even shut the show off when they started pointing out the very serious dangers that we all face, with no regulation of the risks taken.

Mar. 01 2008 10:52 AM
Mary Dandrea from West Palm Beach, Florida

I LOVE Radiolab! Very interesting - always. I believe the ability to alter life forms is fascinating, however, the ripples that may or might result as a consequence of these alterations may be so far-reaching, our minds really can't comprehend or compile all of the details.
Go carefully. Alteration for the fun of it or the creativity of it is not a good enough reason without years of tremendous research. And even then..... I kind of like the life forms we have!
Mary Dandrea

Feb. 29 2008 04:07 PM
Chandra Garsson from Oakland, CA

I love your show. I just listened to '(So called) Life', #404. I thought you might enjoy seeing my artwork at:, and

Now I know what I've been trying to do with my work all along and didn't know it-
portraits of newly created life forms.

Thanks, Chandra

Feb. 23 2008 05:50 PM

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