Current Essays

The Beans from Brazil On:2004-08-26 11:16:05

Now, I've seen that weird movie by Terry Gilliam with it's homage to the Odessa Steps scene from Eisenstein's 'Bronenosets Potyomkin' so... Oh! No! No! Sorry! Wrong one! I mean that other movie, not Gilliam's 'Brazil' but Schaffner's 'The Beans from Brazil', you know the one where Laurence Olivier and full supporting cast track and fight those evil guys led by Gregory Peck (with a severe case of Mengele-itis) who are trying to clone Hitler's favourite cup of joe---THAT's the movie I've seen and since I have seen that movie, the recent announcement that they (those really frightening real scientists from Brazil) have just sequenced the DNA of the bean comes as no surprise, though something of a shock.

While these particular bean counters claim (according to the BBC so we absolutely must believe them) that in spite of their new found knowledge their creation of ein Überkaffee will be done naturally through cross-pollination and not through evil genetic manipulations in some secret laboratory----the usual behaviour of the suspects (I mean scientists) engaged in GM, (and even more so of their bosses) is quite different and much splicier and (with apologies to all my fellow left-handers out there) sinister.
Well, while I'm certainly no Frankenluddite I am painfully aware of GM's many scientific and civic caveant so I do rather worry about this stuff---not so much because of the inevitable serious accident with genetic modification that will devastate ...whatever, nor with the more subtle errors that we will eventually be shocked, shocked to discover and regret, nor (in the final analysis) because of the fact that after a while we are sure to become addicted to the results of all this GM (if not necessarily to its actual products---though if you think that if they, by chance, happen to discover that they can make, say, some artificial sweetener addictive, they would hesitate for any longer than it would take them to improve their stock portfolios, then you should phone your idea supplier and have another thought coming just as soon as possible!) and so we will have a tendency to fall into the clutches of monsantoid pushermen1 who are all unquestionably evil, and given to moneygrubbage of the worst kind, and who without exception have the moral compass of a civet cat on heat.

No! No, what worries me most is what it will do to the ability of Extraterrestrials to communicate with us!

You see, just after hearing about the decoder beans on the radio, I happened to turn to print, and to that wonderful source of all things scientific the British weekly New Scientist where I read an article that, after engaging in some rigorous scientific poo-poo-age of the chances of SETI (you know, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) for SETI ever finding anything, intrigued the reader (well at least intrigued this reader) with some speculation about oddly useless, suspiciously enormous chunks of DNA to be found scattered about in genomes everywhere. This so-called "junk DNA", according to the article's author, Paul Davies of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University, Sydney, appears to serve no useful purpose and interestingly has recently been found to contain vast (as he says) highly conserved sequences-- which means that there are useless bits that don't change (at least not much): that for example they are pretty-much the same in mouse as in man! Now our Astrobiologist (and I, for one, didn't even realize that stars had a biology, let alone that it could be studied in Australia), having managed already to get SETI gone, notes that a more attractive strategy for ET than calling from home, is to plant some artifact with a message on or near potential planets, just like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the trouble with that is these things might have to hang around for hundreds of millions of years all the while at the mercy of cosmic rays and meteorites and interstellar road sweepers (I added that one) and loads of other horrible dangers.

So perhaps our ETs might look for a self-repairing, endlessly replicated store for their message. And here is where it all comes together, because the ideal place would be in JUST those highly conserved junk DNA sequences. Indeed we may all be carrying around the entire coded Encyclopaedia Galactica in every one of our cells! And all we have to do is to decode it. Indeed we might just find the Answer, you know the answer to 'Life, the Universe and Everything'.
Although it wouldn't surprise me if by the time we do get around to reading it, those buggers in the GM industry will have mucked around with DNA so much that all we'll be able to read will be:
"...and the universe was created by Aaaarghhhh..."

Cheerio for now
from Richard Howland-Bolton.


1 Monsantoid
"...monsantoid pushermen" Isn't it amazing how coincidences occur? This chance concatenation of letters may happen to look a bit like the name of a truly wonderful, upright, honest, little-old-lady-across-the-road-leading company called (I believe) Monsanto but of course when it comes to Monsanto nothing could be further from the truth.
I wonder if they have lawyers?

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