This so-called life…

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 10, 2008

Yesterday’s post in Engineering Life talks about the questions that are raised by genetic engineering, and whether we ought to be more worried than we are. I wanted to take the chance to point you to WNYC Radio Lab’s (So-called) Life episode, which talks about just this — what is life, what counts as natural? Brilliant radio. Listen to it!

Engineering Life’s blogger Carl Zimmer writes:

Imagine that mad scientists defied nature and violated the barriers between species. They injected human DNA into non-human creatures, altering their genomes into chimeras–unnatural fusions of man and beast. The goal of the scientists was to enslave these creatures, to exploit their cellular machinery for human gain. The creatures began to produce human proteins, so many of them that they become sick, in some cases even dying. The scientists harvest the proteins, and then, breaching the sacred barrier between species yet again, people injected the unnatural molecules into their own bodies.

This may sound like a futuristic nightmare, the kind that we will only experience if we neglect our moral compass and let science go berserk. But it is actually happening right now. Today millions of people with diabetes will inject themselves with insulin that was produced by E. coli.

The fact that no one is disturbed by this state of affairs says a lot.

But thirty years ago, the public rebelled against the same idea — of sticking genes into E. Coli so that it would produce human insulin. The project was condemned by many activitists. And yet…

We suffered no epidemic of diabetic comas, no cancer viruses spread by E. coli from host to host. None of the dire warnings about engineered E. coli, in fact, came to pass. It appears that the safeguards put in place were good enough, and that engineered E. coli could not compete with its wild cousins. Scientists continued to engineer E. coli, and today it can make all manner of substances, from blood-thinners to jet fuel

Today we’re capable of much more than this with genetic engineering, including the engineering of chimeras (beings created by mixing cells that originated from two different beings).

It’s not quite clear to me where the Engineering Life blogger (Carl Zimmer) stands on the issue, as he finishes with a less cautionary, more relativistic stance:

But it’s also important to bear in mind how easy it is to be terrified by a science-fiction caricature of what’s really going on in synthetic biology labs. We have a profound distrust of what seems unnatural, such as crossing species boundaries. Yet a casual glance at E. coli’s genome demonstrates that nature has been inserting foreign genes into it by the hundreds for millions of years. Our own genome is not immune from these violations. We carry the remains of thousands of viruses in our DNA, and most people on Earth may even carry genes inherited from another species of human–Neanderthals. We may be disgusted by the thought of violating species boundaries because of deeply ingrained instincts. But that disgust is an unreliable guide to the realities of biology, whether that biology is in E. coli or in ourselves.

I’m not really sure where I stand on the issue, to be honest. I don’t have an emotional reaction to mixing species — the “disgust” response outlined above. But I am cautious about introducing new creatures to our world, as the law of unintended consequences often seems to hold. But I feel somewhat powerless to make a stand one way or the other. I was not in favor of putting GMO corn out in the cornfields, and now look where we are — GMO corn has spread all over North America on the wind. Did we used to have more control over these new innovations, or has the public always felt unable to enter the debate about what is done in their world?

[Crossposted on Engineering Life]

[Picture: “The Young Family,” by Patrician Piccini (2002-3). Wikipedia]

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dave June 10, 2008 at 8:48 am

It’s a fairly simple fact, if not a rule, of human existence that “that which can be done, will be done.” So whether we are in favor of these sorts of experiments or not, our ability to do them ensures their eventual occurrence.

To my mind, this means that we need to encourage experimentation, with proper oversight. I know, I know: “Oooh, the liberal, calling for more government! How counterintuitive!”, right?

But it’s true – if companies can make SuperCorn, they will. And they’ll sell it. So our best bet is to have some really smart scientists look over proposed GMO’s and make their best-faith guess about what the potential is for harm. If the potential is low, then we let it go.

If you make the hurdles too high, people will simply find a way to go around them. So the trick is to find a way to make it reasonably easy to get past, and expensive to go around.

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