Genetic Engineering

Did you see this report of genetically mutating mosquitoes? What do you think?

Researchers on Sunday reported initial signs of success from the first release into the environment of mosquitoes engineered to pass a lethal gene to their offspring, killing them before they reach adulthood.

The results, and other work elsewhere, could herald an age in which genetically modified insects will be used to help control agricultural pests and insect-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria.

But the research is arousing concern about possible unintended effects on public health and the environment, because once genetically modified insects are released, they cannot be recalled.

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  • Who takes responsibility when it fails? Because if it goes wrong, it is the worlds poor who will most probably feel the effects again.

  • DRT

    Very against it. Primarily because life modifies itself, a new beginning point creates new end points once out there.

  • Robert

    A lethal gene may not be as successful as they hope. Presumably it’s a recessive – most of them are defective copies of a gene producing a vital protein. If you have one OK gene you’re a carrier, but two defective ones and you’re dead. So it survives in the population, but characteristically they’re found at very low levels for obvious reasons. A gene which allowed the offspring to survive and breed, but weakened them somehow, moght be more successful, but it would still be selected against.

  • Simon Velvin

    Given that any progeny of the engineered mosquitoes dies before they are able to breed, the chances of the artificial engineering remaining in the environment are slim. The modifications also make the mosquitoes less able to breed, so any resistance is likely to be selected against in later generations, making it unlikely that the entire population of mosquitoes will become resistant to it.

    I think this is a great use of the technology, and it’s certainly better than the alternative use of toxins in the environment.

  • DRT

    In corporate life, most professions engage in a risk analysis that helps people think through endevours that have a downside associated with them. Most folks in the public are not so analytically bent to adopt such thinking, and, unfortunately, there are many businesses and governments that do not either, but to the point….

    The problem is that the System in this case is quite large and there are things we just don’t know. To quote Donald Rumsfield:

    [T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
    We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

    There are just too many unknown unknowns in this case for me.

    Simon Velvin#4 uses probabilistic words quite a bit. I believe the potential consequence is so dire, and the anticipated level of unknown unknowns so, well, unknown, that I have a difficult time thinking animate organisms such as these should be allowed in the environment.

  • Brian

    There was an interview on Science Friday on NPR on 11/7/11 about this. It seems rather easy for us who do not face these deadly problems to decide that it not worth the risk.

  • Randall

    These folks don’t watch enough science fiction like ‘I am Legend’ or Mimic. As DRT said above, there are known unknowns and there are truly unknown unknowns out there that may involve interconnections between facets of the eco-system that are currently not even imagined. Some of this kind of stuff can’t be undone if you discover it is detrimental. I am sympathetic to the desire to deter the spread of disease but I don’t think we are wise to do this right now.

  • DLS

    Dr. Ian Malcolm has a lot to say about this.

  • DRT

    You know, I would almost rather this type of stuff be done with Dino’s or horses or Dolly and such. At least you can see what is going on with them….. and be able to take guns to ’em.

  • JohnM

    From a current Scientfic American article I found there are a couple different GM strategies proposed. One designed to crash a population, and thus not persist in the wild; this one would not be a permanent “fix” without follow-up. The other designed to produce a virus resistant population, and would be self sustaining.

    Either way, I have to wonder, how science based are the objections? The thing is, we know for certain what dengue fever does, and I gather from the article the situation is growing worse. I suppose doing nothing for fear of what we might end up doing is one alternative, but in addition to the known consequences might’nt there also be unintended consequenses to “letting nature takes it’s course”? Should inaction clear our consciouses?

  • JohnM

    The Scientific American article, I should add, is in the November issue; titled The Wipeout Gene, by Bijal P. Trivedi.

  • DRT

    JohnM, I would say that scientists are generally speaking, less good or capable at assessing merit of unknown unknowns. Scientists power ally is in the known knowns and unknowns.

    There could be a scientific discipline that gets spun up as a result of things like this that would take into account the relative complexity of the System [System with a capital S stands for all of the factors that interact with what we are dealing with here] but most of science does not, and engineering does to some extent (FEMA and such which I had a course on in college !).

    The weapons of mass distruction debates and moral culpability of the scientists are only the top of the iceberg in this if you ask me. There is a saying, to mess up is human, to really screw up takes a computer. As we have more and more potential and realized leverage in our capabilities (atomic bombs do much more damage than TNT, genetics can do much more damage than biological warfare), we are gong to need to get a handle on the idea that the unforeseen interactions within the System can have a life of their own. And, to the point of Cobus in #1, who is accountable for that? We have a very difficult problem on our hands.

    And, not to belabor the point, the first instance of this in the world today is not leading to a very good track record. Global warming and climate change is, imo, the first time that the collective pursuits are have global and species oriented effects. At a minimum it presents a terrible quandry where we cannot even agree there is a problem due to the self interest involved let alone think about a solution.

    We have big problems coming.

  • I recommend W Brian Arthur’s book, ‘The Nature of Technology’. He analyses the nature of technology itself and towards the end considers our ambiguous perceptions of it.

    There’s more detail about the book in my latest blog post –

  • Ambiguous? I meant to type ‘ambivalent’. D’oh!