The Loom

Frankenstein Freak-outs

Radiolab is a show about science that briliantly uses radio’s greatest strength–sound–to bring stories to life in ways we print goons can only dream about. I wrote a story about how animals sleep. The Radiolab folks played the sound of brain waves from a sleeping cat. And so on.

I’m particularly fond of their latest podcast, which you can listen to below. It’s about chimeras, synthetic biology, and other threats to our conventional notions of life.

Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Robert Krulwich, one of the hosts, and in recent months he and I have spent a fair amount of time talking about the brave new world of synthetic biology. He is freaked out in many ways, some legitimate, and some, I think, not so much. (I recently wrote about why I can’t summon up a good freak-out in Wired.) Bascially, I think ordinary biology like foul drinking water and drug-resistant bacteria is more frightening than a microbe that smells like wintergreen. But you can listen to Krulwich get disturbed and judge for yourself.


  1. #1 Mus
    April 13, 2008

    ***warning: this comment may contain spoilers***
    I’m subscribed to the podcast, and I normally love it. It’s one of my top podcasts. However, I have to say that I was severely disappointed with this latest podcast. Partly it was because I already knew about chimeras and other stuff, so the story seemed to take forever. However, the thing that really drove me crazy was all the sensationalism and multiple little details. For example, at one point they say that humans evolved from chimps. Another one is that they pretty much say that for the first BILLION or so years of life on earth, evolution did not apply. I also have an issue with a lot of what Freeman Dyson said and them airing it, but I’ll stop.

  2. #2 SJC
    April 14, 2008

    I agree with the previous post. All the stuff with the engineered E. coli seems relatively mundane compared to all the other promising facets of biotechnology. The accomplishment of the iGEM students wasn’t that they made the bacteria with any particular function (lots of undergrads get to make glow-in-the-dark E. coli) but that it was a system that can be used as an indicator, that it required no additional inputs, and that it was all accomplished in a single summer from the ground up, independent from academic research. This all unfortunately got lost somewhere in preparing the story.

  3. #3 oh minseok
    April 14, 2008


    I’m a korean living in seoul.(name: Oh Minseok)
    Korean special investigative team are investigating samsung
    But they do not work right.
    I am suspicious to be bought off.
    samsung corporation has many crimes.
    And the team investigates samsung corporation.
    It contains korean companies samsung,huyndai,sk CEOs’ illegal issuing
    stocks or bonds.
    The quantity are plenty.
    (Three company CEOs did(and are doing) many crimes to me.
    Many koreans are knowing it.
    But many koreans are bought off by illegal issuing stocks or bonds.)
    The team are knowing it.
    Korean special investigative team must investigate this.
    But they are trying to conceal it.
    I ask for asking for this criminal investigation to prosecutors in any
    And help the shareholders and me.

    Three companies are hacking me and trying to kill me.
    And are suspicious to use my name and email illegally.
    If you receive another message that I dictated above are not true,
    it is not from me, but from three companies.
    The things I dictated above are true.

  4. #4 AntiquatedTory
    April 21, 2008

    Paranoid schizophrenic free verse! In a second language, no less.

  5. #5 Stephen
    April 23, 2008

    It’s a script. I assumed Robert was acting to dramatize a point or two.

    Engineering E. Coli is potentially dangerous *because* it’s at home in my gut. What if flouresent green e coli out competes my normal culture? Green poop? Eeeuu.

    And yet, as an engineer, i know that to learn, we must do this sort of stuff. Maybe it’s a good use for ISS.

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