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Super hero spiderman sparks genetic debate

Press release issued: 25 November 2003

A lecture on the science behind the powers of comic book hero Spiderman takes places in London this Wednesday.

A lecture on the science behind the powers of comic book hero Spiderman will pave the way for a debate on important genetic issues between schoolchildren and a panel of leading scientists this Wednesday.

Dr Harry Witchel of Bristol University who will deliver the talk, said: “Peter Parker was transformed into Spiderman after he was attacked by a genetically modified spider which altered his genetic make-up.  This science fiction scenario is the ideal starting point to debate some of the important and pressing issues on genetics with schoolchildren”.

Spiderman’s super ‘spidey senses’ and his ability to quirt spider web came about as a result of genetic engineering and this resonates with aspects of today’s genetic debate on, for example, whether parents should be allowed determine the colour of their baby’s eyes.

The event is the culmination of the ‘Genetic Futures’ schools initiative and will be held at the Royal Society on 26 November.

Eighty children from across the UK will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA by voicing their opinions on topics such as designer babies, gene therapy and GM plants and, in a Junior Question Time, will ask a panel made up of scientific experts, government representatives, interest groups and regulatory bodies challenging questions about the future of genetics.

The children taking part will represent schools from each of the eight regional events that have been held over the past two months.  In total, 800 14- to 16-year-olds have had the opportunity to discuss topical issues in genetics, experience practical workshops and let their imaginations loose on where DNA science might be in 2053.

An exhibition of newspaper supplements designed and written by the students will illustrate what genetic science has achieved to date and will discuss the practical and ethical implications of these advances both now and in the future.

Nobel Prizewinner Sir John Sulston, one of the scientists on the panel, said: “These events have been an education for everyone involved.  The children have explored in a fun way an important area of research, which has huge potential for good but at the same times needs careful handling by society.  The scientists have had the chance to find out directly what the children think about the issues.

“We hope the children are excited by modern genetics, that some of them are inspired to become genetic scientists in the future, and that all are better equipped to be knowledgeable citizens.”

Each school participating in the national event will receive a certificate signed by Alan Johnson, Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. He said: “It is important that young people feel confident and inspired to debate some of the major social and ethical questions arising from new developments in science and technology.  Events such as the ‘Genetic Futures’ schools initiative make a really valuable contribution to science teaching and learning and I congratulate all the schools and organisations that have been involved.”

A survey published by NESTA on Monday showed that teenagers want to debate controversial issues such as human cloning rather than just learning the facts by rote.

The series of ‘Genetic Futures’ events have been developed by a partnership of several organisations.  These include: Bio-Rad, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health, the MRC, NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and the Royal Society.  The events have been organised by the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University.

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