Category Archives: Ethics

Save the Panda? Group research, database and discussion task.

This task is based on Chris Packham’s comments on Panda conservation and is intended to give students an insight into conservation issues and use of the IUCN Red List database. Here is a quick news clip with him defending his comments, and the activity is embedded below.

By the end of this session, students should be able to:

  • Distinguish between keystone and flagship species, with examples of each
  • Access and use the IUCN Red List database
  • Appreciate that threats to one species often threaten other species in the same area
  • Discuss the benefits of whole-ecosystem conservation
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Once this is complete, watch one of these TED Talks on active conservation management techniques and their successes. Conservation really is inspiration!

Dan Barber: How I fell in love with a fish

John Kasaona: How rhino poachers became caretakers

Willie Smits: How we regrew a rainforest

Wow!

Embryonic Stem Cell Patents Banned in EU

Yesterday, the European Court of Justice banned the issuing of patents for embyronic stem cell research, stating:

A process which involves removal of a stem cell from a human embryo at the blastocyst stage, entailing the destruction of that embryo, cannot be patented.

The decision has caused widespread concern amongst European stem cell researchers, yet has been welcomed by other groups on moral, ethical or religious grounds.

So why is it such a hot topic?

Human Embryonic Stem Cells (Nissim Benvenisty, via Wikimedia Commons)

Human Embryonic Stem Cells (Nissim Benvenisty, via Wikimedia Commons)

Use the resources here, and others that you can find, to discuss the following questions in your group. Be prepared to feed back to the class with a summary of no more than 5 minutes.

  • What are (embryonic) stem cells and how do their properties facilitate research?
  • Where are stem cells found? Are they all the same?
  • How do stem cells eventually become differentiated and specialised?
  • Outline at least one recent successful therapeutic use of stem cells.
  • Identify a range of stakeholders in the debate. What are their views and reasons for them?
  • Can you propose potential solutions or workable compromises that could reduce the impact of the ban on scientific research?
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Resources:

EuroStemCell’s Stem Cell Story (with a load of great, free resources and videos on their website)

Some write-ups on this news story here:

About Stem Cells:

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Theory of Knowledge

The embryonic stem cell debate generates strong and emotive knowledge issues, which is evidenced by the fact that the case was passed all the way up to the European Court of Justice. There are many stakeholders in embryonic stem cell research, each with their own knowledge claims and beliefs.

With this recent ban on patenting methods based on the destruction of embryonic stem cells, we add the elements of patenting and intellectual ownership (and of course the knock-on effects to funding, progress and public perception).

To what extent does the embryonic stem cell debate highlight potential conflicts between the areas of knowledge of the natural sciences and ethics and between the ways of knowing of emotion and reason?

After reading through, understanding and discussing the resources, what knowledge issues can you identify?

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Connections:

This follows on from a related story in the USA last year:

Comments have been disabled on this post, but are open on the TOK page for the same content.

Sex, Lies and Cigarettes

I came across this video via Steve Harton’s Hartonline Bio website and clicked on it because of the Indonesia connection. I’m glad I did, though it made me quite angry.

Aldi

Aldi

Having spent most of the last eight years in Indonesia, I have long been concerned about the ubiquity of the tobacco industry and the all-pervasive nature of the advertising. Everything – literally everything – is sponsored by tobacco. From TV and movies to sports (!), some schools (!!) and music concerts. There is no escaping the message that smoking is cool, good for you and leads to an exciting life.

So how did it get this way when the developed world is shunning the dangers of smoking?

This 40-minute documentary by Vanguard puts it all in context. From the viral video sensation of Aldi the smoking baby, to the simple, ruthless economics of exploiting a developing country and targeting their children as an emerging market, the film-makers lay it out clearly and passionately. It focuses too on the work of an anti-smoking action group who face the huge challenge of taking on big tobacco in a country where so much depends on it – it’s a major cash crop and source of income.

This video is a YouTube upload, but there are clips and resources on the official Vanguard page.

I loved the bit where the Miss Indonesia contestants help the film-maker crash the World Tobacco Asia conference!

Some questions and thoughts to consider when watching the movie:

  1. Near the end of the movie, there is a quote from Warren Buffett: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.” Although he has changed his stance on tobacco, it neatly illustrates the bottom-line ethos of business.
  2. As a publicly-owned company, your main responsibility is to the shareholder – you must maximise profits. Discuss the ethics of targeting children in emerging economies as a market.
  3. Accepted science states that tobacco is addictive and harmful to human health. Why then has this not been recognised by the Indonesian government?
One thing I noticed that the film does not mention – in recent years, anti-smoking has started to take off and it is now forbidden to smoke in public transport and restaurants (still allowed here in Japan). Does this mean the movement is gaining ground? Time will tell.

For more good documentaries, have a look at Vanguard's website.

Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology Update

Here is the updated presentation for 4.4 Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. There are some new slides and clearer explanations, as well as a new visual identity. It should also be downloadable as a pptx file.

For many more resources go to the page for 4.4 Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

Are we ready for neo-evolution?

An entertaining and informative TED talk by medical ethicist Harvey Fineberg on the future of human evolution and the ethics surrounding the decisions that we may soon be able to make regarding our children and our health. With strong links to the Human Genome Project, evolution, ethics, genetic engineering, stem cells and TOK, this is a great video to watch and stimulate discussion and thought in the Genetics unit.

What do you think?

Stephen Fry and the Great American Oil Spill

“This turtle gonna go to rehab, to make its flippers go, go, go…*”

In a recent BBC documentary, Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine head to the USA to see the damage and recovery from the Deepwater Horizon oilspill:

“Stephen Fry loves Louisiana. Four months after the BP oil spill, dubbed the worst ecological disaster in the history of America, Fry returns to the Deep South together with zoologist Mark Carwardine, to see what the impact has been on the people, the vast wetlands and the species that live there. What they find both surprises and divides the travelling duo.”

From the BBC Website (you might get it in your area)

Two more BBC YouTube clips: Has the oil really gone? and Damage to the deep-sea ecosystem.

 

BBC Special Report: Oil Spill

The BBC has a good set of resources on the BP Oil Spill, as do the Geographical Association and PBS News Hour Extra. More resources can be found at NewsroomAmerica and Associated Content.

The Deepwater Horizon spill would make a great foundation for an interdisciplinary science unit or Group 4 project, looking at ocean chemistry, waves and dispersal, remote sensing technologies, geological resources, ecology, marine biology and food chains, economics, politics, ethics and much more.

*Amy Winehouse, if you didn’t get it.

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E4: Neurotransmitters and Synapses

Review Nerves content from the Core before completing this topic.

Class presentation:

Essential Biology E4: Neurotransmitters and Synapses

The New Science of Addiction: Genetics and The Brain

From Learn.Genetics

Fantastic resources available from Utah, including the mouse party, neuron and synapse animations and an interactive involving pedigree charts and the role of genetics in addiction.

Spend some time here to really read around the subject of drugs and addiction – you’ll be glad you did and it really helps answer the ‘discuss the causes of addiction’ question!

Drugs and The Brain

jellinek.png

Jellinek is a Dutch drugs education website that has some great, accessible resources for neurobiology of drugs and the brain. Animations are available in multiple languages – why can’t more organisations be as internationally-minded as this?

Be patient though -it needs a lot of bandwidth.

Neurotransmitters and Drugs:

Good powerpoint from HHMI

Excellent overview of effects of drugs (Harvard)

Amphetamines, Cocaine, Nicotine as excitatory psychoactives (McGill ‘The Brain’)

Benzodiazepines, Cannabis, Alcohol as inhibitory psychoactives (McGill ‘The Brain’)

TOK and Biology: The Nutt-Sack Affair

Leader of advisory panel on drug safety sacked for disagreeing with UK government:

http://www.badscience.net/2009/11/the-nutt-sack-affair-part-493/

Read around the topic, and then answer these questions:

Nutt's Scale of Drugs

  1. How does this story show the conflict between science and politics?
  2. What do you feel the respective roles of science and politics should be in the government of a country?
  3. Suggest reasons why some drugs which are clearly very harmful, such as tobacco and alcohol, are still legal in many countries.
  4. If you were to form a new country and write a whole new set of drug laws, which would you make illegal or legal and why? Upon which sources of evidence would you rely in order to make your decisions? How would you balance political pressures with scientific evidence?

Find out more about drug laws and the rationale behind them in your own country and the countries you visit or live in.

Remember – regardless of your own opinion on drug laws, if you are caught breaking the law wherever you are, penalties can be very severe.

The 11th Hour re-up: Human Impacts on Ecosystems

In 2007, Leonardo DiCaprio released his environmental call-to-arms, The 11th Hour. And it’s very good. It really knocks home the old proverb that we are not inheriting the Earth from our ancestors, but borrowing it from our children.

Update 2009: the whole film is available on GoogleVideo (as all good documentaries should be):

The movie contains contributions from the likes of Stephen Hawking, Nobel-winner Wangari Maathai and David Suzuki. Particularly useful is Gloria Flora‘s sentiment that we all vote, every day – even those who are too young to cast a ballot – by making informed choices about what we consume, spend our money on and throw away.

Watch It!

Watch It!

The first half of the movie is a talking-heads and imagery look at our impacts on the Earth, with plenty of soundbites and starting-points for further discussion. The political middle section describes how economic growth and interests are driving destruction. The final act is a great collection of ideas and hope – a call to arms and a realisation that the environmental movement is growing quickly and strongly. But is it going to be in time to save our species and the thousands that we drive to extinction each year?

Now here’s Leo’s video message (including the ‘vote’ quote from Gloria Flora):

For some further reading, go to the 11th hour Action website.

IB Biology students:

Here is a quick question sheet for the movie, linking some of the topics to the Ecology and Conservation option.

Higher Level students: pay attention to the parts about the role of trees in the environment, in particular through water-uptake. Also, do you understand how mycofiltration (using fungal mycelia) could be used to clean polluted soils?

For good measure, here’s Linkin Park’s accompanying music video, What I’ve Done :

Hybrid Hearts: Stem Cell Transplants 2.0

“Can we use stem cells to make a new heart/eye/lung/liver etc?”

This is the predictable and perennial question that comes up from at least one student when we are looking at stem cells, genetic engineering, cell differentiation and transplanting. Until now, the answer has (perhaps in an oversimplified way) been ‘no’.

We can use stem cell transplants to treat lymphoma. Recently a young woman had a trachea transplant based on stem cell technology. Skin grafts from a patient’s own cultured cells are also possible, as are stem cell-based bladders. However, these are all rather simple technologies.

To treat lymphoma, bone marrow cells are replaced, and are all the same. The trachea transplant was a pre-existing trachea simply coated in the patient’s stem cells to prevent immune rejection. Skin transplants are basically sheets of epidermis that cover a wound, yet do not have the intricate functions of original skin: temperature regulation, secretion, senses. The bladder is a bag.

The challenge with using stem cells to transplant a more complex organ, such as a heart, is that it is not a simple sheet made of one type of cell. It is complex 3D structure, with a range of cells performing specific tasks within the organ. These cells have differentiated to perform their functions: cardiomyocytes (beating cells), vascular endothelial cells (smooth internal surfaces) and smooth muscle cells (blood vessel walls).

How can we get the stem cells to become the right type of cell, in the right position?

The answer to this question could be the key to opening up new doors in the search for viable transplantable organs in medicine, and bears much in common with the trachea case. It also marks a return to form for the NewScientist YouTube channel, who have this short clip of the new hearts in action:

A full article to accompany the footage is here.

In a nutshell:

Decellularised pig heart: the scaffold (NewScientist)

Decellularised pig heart: the scaffold (NewScientist)

1. Find a suitable transplant organ, such as a pig’s heart.

2. Strip of all cells and DNA, using a detergent. Only the collagen ‘scaffold’ remains, as in the image of the decellularised heart to the right.

3. Coat the scaffold with the recipient’s stem cells.

4. Ensure that the blood supply is adequate and will provide the right signals for differentiation.

What is amazing in this case is how the cells ‘knew’ what specialised cells to become. The leader of the research group, Dr. Doris Taylor, puts it down to the mechanical stimulus of the pressure of the blood in the vessels and chambers and chemical signals from growth factors and peptides that remained on the stripped heart structure.

They even went as far as replacing a healthy rat’s heart with one of these new hybrid hearts. The rat survived for the trial, but she says they need to focus on producing more muscular hearts in order to ensure long-term survival of transplant recipients.

Food for thought:

Read the whole article and some of the links within it. Discuss these questions:

1. What are the potential uses for this kind of transplant technology?

2. What are the current limitations of this method and how might they be overcome?

3. What are the ethical issues related to using hybrid (pig-human) organs in medical transplants? How would you feel if you were the patient?

4. Who are the various stakeholders in this technology and what are their viewpoints?

Useful Sources:

Dr Doris Taylor’s research page from the University of Minnesota

NewScientist Article: Hybrid hearts could solve transplant problem

BioAlive stem cells links and resources

Can stem cells repair a damaged heart? from the NIH

Research reveals how stem cells build a heart, from Harvard news.

Genetics – Megapost

Get the Essential Biology 04 – Genetics Revision guides here:  Standard LevelHigher Level

Top websites:

Learn.Genetics@Utah awesome resources

Click4Biology Genetics pages: CoreHigher Level

BioEthics Education Project: The Human GenomeGenetic Technology

And as always, click on the shadowed images in the presentations to be taken to source videos and animations.

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Here are all the presentations for the Genetics topics.

Core:

More presentations after the jump…

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