Monday, July 4, 2016

Is It Nice to Fool Mother Nature?

From the research towards the treatment of human genomic disorders spurred by systems like Crispr (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) – effectively editing gene sequencing – to genetically modified organisms in commercial food products (animals and plants), mankind’s medical-scientific community is heavily focused on messing with genes. As the medical community addresses genetic disorders, as old world medications are hitting walls – antibiotic-resistant bacteria, for example – and as Malthusian population growth increases demands on the food supply system, the expanding biotech focus is on designing nano-particles and reengineering genes and gene sequencing. Efficiency. Disease resistance. Fatter and juicier.
Those expressing religious and moral outrage at messing with God’s/nature’s creations have joined natural-foods skeptics in questioning this newfound scientific proclivity. Mandating label disclosures on food products is a hot topic worldwide. But while these moral and regulatory battles rage globally, scientists are also looking to using genetic editing to cope with the migration of disease-carrying insects into new, unprepared regions impacted by global warming.
“A revolutionary technology known as ‘gene drive,’ which for the first time gives humans the power to alter or perhaps eliminate entire populations of organisms in the wild, has stirred both excitement and fear since scientists proposed a means to construct it two years ago.
“Scientists dream of deploying gene drive, for example, to wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitoes that cause the deaths of 300,000 African children each year, or invasive rodents that damage island ecosystems. But some experts have warned that the technique could lead to unforeseen harm to the environment. Some scientists have called on the federal government to regulate it, and some environmental watchdogs have called for a moratorium…
“‘The potential to reduce human suffering and ecological damage demands scientific attention,’ said Elizabeth Heitman, a medical ethicist at Vanderbilt University who helped lead the committee. ‘Gene drive is a fascinating area of science that has promise if we can study it appropriately.’” New York Times, June 8th. But, all the expected science-fiction-themed television and feature productions notwithstanding, there is a very big catch.
“[There] is not yet enough evidence about the unintended consequences of gene drives to justify the release of an organism that has been engineered to carry one. But the green light for gene drive research from the influential group, scientists said, would likely open the door to new funding and provide an impetus for governments around the world to consider how it might be regulated and deployed.
“For centuries, people have tinkered with the genetic makeup of living things whose survival and reproduction are already largely under our control: pets, farm animals, crops and assorted species of laboratory animals. With the advent of new gene-editing tools like one called Crispr, there is even growing debate about modifying human embryos with traits that could be passed on their descendants. But a gene drive involves potentially transforming an entire wild species over a few generations by modifying just a few individuals.
“Our ability to do that has so far been stymied because any changes humans might make typically reduce an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in its natural habitat: natural selection eliminates the altered genes.
“Gene drives overcome this by ensuring that a particular gene is transmitted to all of an individual’s offspring, rather than the usual half, even if that makes them less fit. The phenomenon has long been known to exist in nature, and Crispr provides an effective way to harness it. By encoding the Crispr editing system itself into an organism’s DNA, scientists can cause a desired edit to reoccur in each generation, ‘driving’ the trait through the wild population.” NY Times. But species in the wild do not operate in a vacuum. They are often material factors in fully-dependent natural eco-cycles around them. Take one element out and prepare to find “unintended consequences” in the ecosystem… potentially very bad consequences that might be irreversible.
The arrival of new insects into unfamiliar environments, such as the ones spreading the Zika virus, has increased pressure on governments to take important steps to stop these bugs any way they can. Spraying toxic chemicals to kill insects appears to be a non-starter based on the years of watching “unintended consequences” from earlier efforts. DDT anyone? So applying gene modifying applications, since there really aren’t yet the kinds of “bad reports” that accompany toxic insect sprays, seems to be the easy button.
Even assuming a need to regulate such efforts, who’s in charge? Who has to sign off? “United States Food and Drug Administration has authority over animals that have been engineered with foreign DNA under a rule that regards them as a type of drug. But the report suggests that other agencies, like the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Bureau of Land Management, might be seen to have a stake in the ecological concerns at the heart of gene drive experiments.” NY Times.
The world is looking to the United States for leadership in the modeling and testing regimes in this evolving field. Computer simulations are capable of some pretty sophisticated analyses, but the scientific community seems to agree that it should be interdisciplinary panels of approved experts who should set the standards.
“Each potential use of gene drive carries its own set of risks and benefits, the report says, and should be assessed independently. Even modeling the ‘cascade of population dynamics and evolutionary processes’ that would influence the ecological effects, the report [from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (N.A.S.), a governmental advisory group] noted, requires far more research. Risks include the possibility that a gene drive might jump to another species for which it was not intended, or that the suppression of one undesirable organism will lead to the emergence of another that is even worse.
“The group recommends ‘phased testing,’ which would include safeguards at each step before eventually releasing organisms into the wild, but it also noted the new ethical challenges posed by how to obtain consent from people whose environments might be affected by such a release. ‘There are few avenues for such participation,’ the report noted, ‘and insufficient guidance on how communities can and should take part.’
“Gene drives spread a trait through a population by ensuring that it is passed to virtually all of an individual’s offspring as it reproduces, rather than the usual half. In laboratory experiments, the desired change has appeared in nearly 100 percent of the offspring of flies and mosquitoes. So far, gene drive research has focused largely on mosquitoes that transmit infectious diseases to humans. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped pay for the N.A.S. report, has spent some $40 million on a gene drive project aimed at eradicating the species of mosquitoes that spread malaria.” NY Times.
But will governments, including our own, feel the pressure to deploy these insect-restraints before the safety valves are put into place? Think Brazil and the up-coming Olympics, for example. Or Africa. What if the safety valves don’t work? What if a few strays get released by mistake? Does the benefit outweigh the risk? How do you feel about this trend?
I’m Peter Dekom, and it does appear that genetic alternation techniques are going to grow and find increasingly wider application… so the time to create clear guidelines has to be immediate.

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