A deep dive with Han Brunner
Question: what do rafts full of people who won’t hurt each other, plastic-dissolving bacteria, gene machines and designer babies have in common? Answer: they were all present on the second day of the InScience Festival. We’ve collected some highlights for you.
The award-winning documentary The Raft by Marcus Lindeen tells the story of anthropologist Santiago Genovés who in 1973 invited ten men and women of different backgrounds on a 101-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft. Genovés’ goal was to study how violence would develop aboard the raft, but to his dismay, the experiment failed: no violence occurred at all. Following the screening of The Raft, social psychologist Cor van Halen of Radboud University led the audience in a discussion on the social dynamics aboard the raft. Despite Genovés’ best efforts to stir competition among his test subjects, no conflicts arose. Quite the contrary, in fact: despite being trapped in a confined space for a long period of time, the test subjects were supportive of one another. With enough food and resources to survive the journey, there was nothing to compete about.
From the raft to a dive in the ocean
From Genovés’ raft peacefully crossing the Atlantic, it’s only a short walk to the “Save the Ocean, One Bacteria at a Time” experiment at Mariënburgkapel. This experiment is one of several interactive experiences at the Exploratorium there. Here, visitors have the opportunity to test their knowledge about DNA and learn how GMOs are already being used and what the future holds. Visitors can learn about the altering of bacteria that could be a solution for the plastic pollution crisis of our oceans. The experiment allows visitors to test how different modified bacteria dissolve microplastics and which factors have to be taken into account in order to achieve a successful result. Another station centers on gene modification and how developments in that field open up new paths to explore resource sustainability and medical research. The use of 3D printers to produce animal organs for medical resources could potentially replace traditional animal farming methods in the future.
Visitors keen to dive deeper into this subject matter did the right thing by attending Han Brunner’s lecture on the state of genetic technology. As a professor at Radboud University, Brunner has witnessed two decades’ worth of changes closely and promises us that a lot more will change in the future. But is that something we want?
There are currently a lot of possibilities when it comes to genetic modification. For instance, we can detect rare diseases that result from genetic defects and screen embryos on possible hereditary diseases. We can even check if the genes of a possible partner suit our own. Naturally, these practices raise all kinds of ethical questions. Who’s to say how far genetic engineering is allowed to go? And who will write these rules? There’s no consensus yet. What is allowed in some countries is taboo in others. In the meantime, the scientific possibilities continue to increase. Nevertheless, we need not worry about a future consisting of only perfect human beings, Brunner argues. The media like to bring us news stories about developments that will lead to designer babies, but the features we would like to influence – humor, aggression, premature baldness – are so complex that it will take a long time before that becomes a reality. If we still want to do so, by then.
Text: Regina Behoekoe, Pia Czarnetzki en Julija Vaitonyte
Photos: Almicheal Fraay, Maros Pulscak en Christa van Vliet