Opinionista Ivo Vegter 5 January 2015

Design your own genetically modified freak show

A company in San Francisco wants to give customers free rein to design creatures with synthetic DNA. This is what progress is all about! I want a glow-in-the-dark attack cat! As ever, especially when it involves genetic engineering, we can expect fear and hand-wringing as the half-informed imagine the worst instead of cheering those who strive for progress.

In 1951, John Wyndham wrote a novel which Arthur C. Clarke would hail as an “immortal story”. As any great work of science fiction does, Wyndham’s book drew from the greats, such as HG Wells, and delved deeply into the human condition in an imagined future. Its characters struggled to survive and grow after a devastating natural disaster that all but destroyed the underpinnings of their society.

No thanks to the sloppy sensationalism of its 1963 film adaptation, however, the novel is more popularly remembered for its title characters: walking, talking carnivorous plants known as triffids.

The book, unlike the film, cites the radical genetic theories of Trofim Lysenko, who was in charge of the Soviet Union’s agriculture science. Lysenko has been thoroughly debunked and the Soviet Union thoroughly destroyed, but still, The Day of the Triffids stands as an early warning of the horrors that await those who dare to experiment with genetic engineering.

Years later – though already more than 20 years ago – Steven Spielberg would rock the cinema world with Jurassic Park. In this Oscar-winning film, dinosaurs are cloned from DNA preserved in amber, only to go on the rampage when power fails at the theme park where they were housed.

This is one of the few films that considers the implications of genetically modified animals. Most books and films that deal with genetic engineering either focus on the fear of out-of-control micro-organisms, or on the moral implications of modifying human DNA.

That will change, if Austen Heinz, the long-haired 31-year-old maverick in charge of Cambrian Genomics, has his way. His start-up laser-prints custom-designed DNA on demand, according to a recent article on SFGate. This would “democratise creation”, as Heinz described it. As the story’s headline put it, he wants to “let customers create creatures”.

Companies like Synthorx, DNA 2.0 and Cambrian are capitalising on last year’s development of synthetic DNA. Scientists for the first time created living DNA that contained a pair of bases not found in nature. This takes genetic engineering to a new level, beyond merely manipulating or splicing existing DNA.

The potential – besides glow-in-the-dark plants and dog poo that smells like bananas – is tremendous. There are applications to many of the major challenges facing humanity today.

Oxitec, a company specialising in genetically modifying insects, is working to eradicate pests without requiring harmful chemicals. Some of its products are already being tested, and they also hope that the same technique will work against mosquitoes. The mosquito is, after all, more than a mere annoyance. It is the deadliest creature on earth, and the only animal that kills more people than people do.

Some genetic experiments focus on creating disease-resistant pigs or produce drugs in camel milk. If that sounds bizarre, consider the case of the Popeye Pig, which contains a spinach gene to reduce the saturated fat content of its meat. Still not freaked out? Imagine a farmyard full of featherless chickens.

For all the freak show horror, however, there are many upsides to radical advances in genetic modification.

We all know the benefits of genetic engineering in crops. The Golden Rice project proposes to improve health in poor countries. Some environmentalists oppose this, of course, causing much human death and misery.

Other genetics applications have improved crop resistance to pests and weed-killers, improving their yield. Recently, the largest-ever review of scientific studies on the impacts of genetically modified crops found that they have an overwhelmingly positive effect on farming. To quote the results: “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

Claims by environmental fear-mongers that genetic modification is harmful have been roundly debunked. A great example last year was the Genetic Literacy Project’s ten for ten smack-down of a piece claiming to list ten studies proving genetically modified organisms are harmful to human health. “Not if science matters,” molecular biologist Dr Layla Katiraee shot back.

The environmental dangers of genetic engineering are also routinely exaggerated or fabricated by opponents.

Sure, there are dubious players in the field. That is true for any sector, especially in its early growth stages. But if you want your worst nightmares realised, don’t fear the innovators, the farmers, the mad scientists or the corporations. Fear the government. They have genetically modified bioweapons well in hand, and are probably less troubled than farmers by hippie vandals.

Technology is a tool. All tools can pose risks, but a scientific approach does not simply discard the tool.

Many drugs have the potential to kill as well as heal. Nuclear physics can be used to blow up cities and provide large amounts of clean, green power. Radiation can both cause and cure cancer.

Likewise, radical advances in genetics have direct implications for human health. Craig Venter, the geneticist whose genome was the first human genome to be sequenced, last year founded a company named Human Longevity. It aims to employ modern genetic biotechnology to combat the diseases of ageing. Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other degenerative conditions remain the scourge of our ageing populations, because smallpox, gangrene and influenza no longer kill us first.

Finding the cure for cancer used to be a by-word for an unlikely but highly desirable discovery. Genetic engineering holds out the promise of just that. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Heinz likens synthetic DNA to software, which “we can update, upgrade, fix and clean”.

Of course there will be ethical questions to resolve. Every technology that significantly advances human civilisation has to deal with those, and these debates will not likely be quiet, civilised affairs, either.

For example, Heinz blundered (by his own admission) into a boiling cauldron of internet outrage when he unburdened himself of some ill-advised observations about a feminine hygiene product based on synthetic DNA.

A much more intractable question will be religious. Is this a case of humans trying to play God? Perhaps, though that allegation has been flung at scientists and doctors for centuries. Dogma has always been held up as a shield against the world’s ethical and practical fears.

If you are not religious, don’t think you can escape the complex moral issues, either. Being able to modify the genetic code of human embryos to prevent disease, for example, sounds amazing. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But it also runs into age-old questions about our right to change the fundamental make-up of a human being. Should we create designer babies?

“I can’t imagine, after ten or twenty years, that people would not design their children digitally,” Heinz told the Wall Street Journal. “It would be thought of as insane or barbaric.”

Beyond the heated controversies lie more practical concerns. In this fast-paced, innovative field, has enough been done to ensure public and environmental safety?

If you consider no regulation to be “enough”, then yes, enough has been done. Undoubtedly opinions will differ on this point, however. Geneticists in the field are themselves very aware of this issue and are cooperating to produce adequate controls and regulations. One point of agreement, for example, is the need for a “kill switch” to neutralise newly-created organisms that turn out to be harmful.

Many technologies can be scary – especially when they are new, and few people really understand them. Steam engines, motor cars, aeroplanes and computers all sparked widespread fretting about infernal machines and dark Satanic mills. At school, I was taught a bar code was the mark of the beast, and we’d all have to refuse to get them tattooed on us. (Some people still believe this.)

We have long had the power to deal death. Humanity has spent thousands of years learning how to cope with that awesome power. Civilisation has thrived despite its bloody history. We are better than our worst actions. Now that we are beginning to master how to create, adapt and preserve life, only a fearful conservative would stand athwart history, yelling Stop.

Come to think of it, is creating, adapting and preserving life not what we’ve been doing all along? DM


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