On one of our recent dates, Kathy and I had stopped by the local pet store to browse around a bit. While passing by the fish, I noticed tank full of fish that were even more brightly colored than the usual tropicals. When asked, a salesperson explained to me that they were GloFish: zebra fish that had been genetically engineered to include a fluorescing protein created by a jellyfish gene. Originally created with an eye toward detecting toxic chemical spills, they are even more eye-catching than the photos show.
The next day, I was listening to an episode of WNYC’s excellent Radio Lab program where they discussed some young bioengineers who got tired of having to smell E. Coli, which is notoriously poopie-scented, all day in their lab. They began by introducing wintergreen genes, and soon had minty-fresh E. Coli in their lab. They then went a step further by having the bacteria start producing a banana smell when full grown, so that the scientists could tell if a culture was ready for experimentation with the merest whiff.
And of course, we’ve had genetically modified foods on our supermarket shelves since the early 1990s. Various GM varieties are more disease and pest-resistant than their unmodified counterparts, have higher yields, last longer without added preservatives, and have their vitamin content boosted.
So, in many ways, it seems like we’re at the dawn of a golden age of bioengineering. We’re able to improve on naturally grown foods, we can engineer unpleasant characteristics out of experimental organisms, and we can even tailor our pets to make them more interesting and fun. What’s not to like?
Quite a bit, as it turns out. Lots of people have concerns about bioengineering, and wonder if it may be a Pandora’s Box we might wish closed again once we have pried out its secrets. A few points to consider:
GloFish are patented just like a mechanical invention would be. From their FAQ:
Because fluorescent fish are unique, their sale is covered by a substantial number of patents and pending patent applications. The providers of GloFish® fluorescent fish, 5-D Tropical and Segrest Farms, are the only distributors that have the necessary licenses to produce and market fluorescent fish within the United States. The production of fluorescent fish by any other party, or the sale of any fluorescent fish not originally distributed by 5-D Tropical or Segrest Farms, is strictly prohibited.
The fact that this patent was granted to cover not just a mechanical device or invention, but a form of life, seems like a pretty big leap. (And allows them to charge an order of magnitude more for these GloFish than for their unmodified brethren.) What do we do with patent and copyright law as we plow into this new area of human endeavor? Consider, for example, an excerpt from this article:
If you could duplicate a person other than yourself, who would it be?
This is not a hypothetical question. Human cloning, may allow you to do
that, with or without the clonee’s consent. Once human cloning technology is available all you’ll need is the desired DNA, and that can be very easily obtained: It is called DNA piracy. The ease of stealing DNA for cloning purposes raises the following question: how is the law going to protect my genes and what legal remedies are afforded in such a case.
DNA Copyright Institution Inc., a privately held corporation in San
Francisco, proposes a solution. It promises copyright protection to your
genetic profile for only $1,500. The visionary DNA Copyright institute,
founded by Andre Crump, is trying to persuade celebrities to use its
services to strengthen their legal position should anyone decide to clone
them against their will.
Yep, the folks out in California are already planning for what happens if you get a strand of Cindy Crawford’s hair and decide to make your own Cindy clone using the DNA therein. More troubling, is it possible for corporations to copyright certain genetic sequences? And if so, can they then bring action for infringement against people who have those sequences in their own genome naturally? There are lots of lines to be drawn here, and it’s not always at all clear where they should be scribed.
Once we have the technology, is is OK to genetically engineer Multiple Sclerosis out of our babies? If so, what else can we change while our kids are still on the drawing board? Can we then choose eye color, hair color, and attractiveness? Could we add a few inches of height to give our kid a psychological advantage? Could we add a few more inches to give them an advantage in basketball? Should our modified basketball player be in the same league as non-modified players, or should there be a GMNBA?
And what of biodiversity? Artificial genes from GM crops can “leak” into the wild population. Even without GM, lots of farms have moved to monocultures — the planting of only the single highest-yield variety of their crop. This tendency would likely be exaggerated further if GM crops showed even better yields than their naturally occurring counterparts. This monoculture farming means that an entire crop can be wiped out by a disease to which it happens to be susceptible. Ironically, it also results in having access to less raw genetic material as the less popular strains are bred out of existence.
Finally, what happens when the bioengineers who may have more malevolent intent start fooling around with this stuff? Freeman Dyson, the futurist who conceived that trusty science fiction chestnut the Dyson Sphere, talks about children having access to home genetic engineering kits. This sounds like great fun as long as kids are just making unicorns or, as South Park would have it, a monkey with five butts.
But what happens when we start bioengineering weapons? Little Timmy could toss together a few genes from bird flu, the cold, SARS, bubonic plague, and a dash of smallpox, mix well, and viola! Instant highly-virulent superweapon! Take it further: engineer it to attack specific racial traits, and you could have a Final Solution that would cause history’s atrocities to look wan and insignificant.
It seems that we have discovered a very powerful tool here. As with all powerful tools, it enables us to accomplish amazing things that were previously impossible, but also has the potential to cause irreparable damage if used irresponsibly. Thus, while our enthusiasm here may tempt us to rush in to a Brave New GM World, I think it’s vital that we approach this new territory with caution. Pay attention to these discussions, befriend a bioethicist, and encourage our lawmakers to take these issues seriously. Our children and their unicorns are depending on us.