Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Quandary column

I Recognise Your Face

By Michael Cook

Legislation for opt-in face recognition is essential despite the protests of companies like Google and Facebook.

Imagine that you are a pastor of an American megachurch. You need to track the attendance of your flock for spiritual and financial purposes, but your records are always inaccurate. How do you hook up your security cameras with face recognition technology?

As spooky as it sounds, a company called Churchix is marketing software that tracks faces in churches and adds their names to a database. And, no, the churches don’t tell their parishioners.

Germline Tinkering Sparks More Controversy

By Michael Cook

The ability to “edit” the genome has already seen Chinese scientists accidentally introduce mutations into human embryos.

The single most controversial development in biology in 2015 is a relatively cheap, easily manipulated technology for modifying the human genome. Called Crispr, this tool allows scientists to “edit” the genome by deleting or adding DNA sequences. In just a couple of years, frenetic activity in labs around the world has taught scientists how to target and activate or silence specific genes.

The implications for plant, animal and human biology are immense. For humans, Crispr opens up a panorama of dramatic cures – and even enhancement of the human genome.

Born to Be Bad

By Michael Cook

The idea that bad guys are made by bad genes may have a new springtime.

The father of modern criminology, the 19th century Italian sociologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), believed that criminality was genetically determined. “Born criminals” could be detected by the presence of a long list of “stigmata” such as an asymmetrical face, sloping forehead, large ears or even left-handedness. They were atavistic biological throwbacks, reversions to an ape-like state, men and women condemned to lives of degeneracy.

A Fresh Look at the Pill

By Michael Cook

If anabolic steroids are considered dangerous, why has so little research been done on the long-term safety of another steroid – the contraceptive pill?

If there is one request by patients that is universally spurned by doctors, without any fear of being labelled paternalistic, it is for performance-enhancing steroids. Extensive research confirms that anabolic steroids damage the liver and the heart, among other problems.

The Science of Persuasion

By Michael Cook

How did scientists win the public relations war to persuade British Parliament to approve the creation of three-parent babies?

After years of discussion, the British House of Commons has approved the creation of embryos with genetic material from two women and one man by a substantial majority – a vote of 382 to 128. The House of Lords will probably pass the bill, which amends the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, later this year.

How did scientists win the public relations war to persuade British Parliament to approve the creation of three-parent babies?

When Do We Become Autonomous?

By Michael Cook

It’s more important for a child to live to become an autonomous adult than to die to defend her mother’s prejudices against medicine.

I am used to controversy, but sometimes you do get surprises. The hot button issues of bioethics – abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, genetically modified foods – always generate passionate controversy, but I never imagined that chemotherapy for a 17-year-old girl would interest anyone.

I was quite wrong. I have hardly ever received so many comments on an issue.

The Bio-Brick Revolution

By Michael Cook

While synthetic biology promises benefits such as glow-in-the dark trees that replace city lights, there are many more sinister applications that have many people worried.

A small American start-up company recently raised nearly half a million dollars through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in order to use synthetic biology to create “sustainable natural lighting” – plants that glow in the dark. According to the pitch, councils could make major savings by planting luminescent trees instead of paying for street lamps.

Or at least that’s the long-term vision.

Mars Mission Bioethics 101

By Michael Cook

A one-way trip to Mars, funded from the rights to a reality TV show, raises many bioethical issues.

All Trekkies are familiar with unavoidable ethical dilemmas in deep space. Now a Dutch group called Mars One is seeking to create them by sending four volunteers to establish a settlement on Mars in April 2023. It will be a one-way trip.

A number of big technology companies are interested in contributing to Mars One, and some big names are publicising it. Gerard ‘t Hooft, a Dutch Nobel laureate in physics, says: “This project seems to me to be the only way to fulfill dreams of mankind’s expansion into space”.

Married at First Sight

By Michael Cook

Reality TV has added a fresh perspective to the bioethical debate about the use of love drugs.

In the United States and Denmark, a reality TV show called Married at First Sight has been an unexpected hit. In what the production company bills as “an extreme social experiment”, three couples meet their spouses for the very first time when they walk down the aisle on their wedding day.

After being legally married with splendid gowns and lots of confetti, they have 1 month to decide whether they will continue or file for divorce.

Ethics in a Time of Ebola

By Michael Cook

The Ebola outbreak has revealed a number of ethical issues that need to be sorted urgently.

Of all the calamities that a society can experience, war included, plague is probably the most frightening and socially disruptive. In the late 14th century the Black Death killed 30–50% of Europe’s population, leading to decades of depopulation and social upheaval. The 1918 influenza epidemic killed 50–100 million people, many of them young and healthy. In more recent times, AIDS, SARS and the H5N1 bird flu have created panic verging on national emergencies.