The transgenic venomous wasps from the Hunger Games film/book are not just a fantasy anymore. It’s our present. The modern bio techniques allow for genetic modification (GM) of virtually any type of organism or a virus.
It all started half a century ago when the genetic code was first cracked, which enabled scientists to intrude into nature’s most intimate, molecular level. Then there were recombinant DNA technology, human genome project, and animal cloning. Another important milestone was reached in May 2010 when Craig “Darth” Venter, a billionaire scientist and the founder of Celera Genomics, announced creation of a first artificial organism he called Synthia. Basically, his research staff took a bacterium Mycoplasma capricolum, removed the entire DNA genome from it, and put back in an artificially synthesized genome of another microbe Mycoplasma mycoides. Synthia managed to live and prosper like any other Mycoplasma.
I guess that didn’t make a big splash in the pond. We’d be a much keener audience if it were a supercrop, which would solve a hunger problem in Africa, or an artificial deadly virus like those made by evil scientists in the Hollywood films. But however little or big the public interest may be, we have already entered a post-genomic era for better or worse.
Synthetic biology is an area of applied science focused on making artificial life forms. Transgenic plants and animals are created not just for research purposes; they represent a big chunk of the agriculture market nowadays. Transgenic bacteria and viruses have been used for decades to drive biological research. Even medicines and vaccines are now being made in genetically modified bacteria.
However, these new technologies may be harmful to the environment. No big surprise here. Transgenic organisms “leaking” to natural habits will likely to have an effect on food webs, biodiversity and, indirectly, on human health. These concerns have been voiced many times in the media, but the environmental impact of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has not been systematically researched yet. Which is strange considering that for years billions of dollars have been spent on generation and commercial exploitation of GMO. The mankind keeps poisoning nature, now on the new level.
Here’s the simplified example. People are scared of GM crops being toxic and harmful for human health. But consider the way they are grown. A company’s research team turns normal wheat into a GM plant resistant to most potent herbicides and pesticides, produced by the same company (it’s needless to name these companies, everyone knows who they are). Then, it’s planted in the soil richly soaked in these toxic chemicals, which efficiently kill pests and weeds but leave the wheat unharmed. Let’s assume the wheat doesn’t accumulate any of the toxic by-products and we can eat that bread safely. But now consider that all these chemicals poison the soil and end up in the water we drink (I don’t know how efficient your local water purification system is). In addition to that, those transgenes can be transferred to normal wheat by cross-pollination or leak to wild life via a virus-mediated horizontal gene transfer.
I say it’s too late to fear such a scenario becoming reality. It’s inevitable. Nature changes with or without our help. Hundreds of organisms die out everyday and the new ones emerge naturally. Human activity accelerates the extinction rate. Yes, we chop down forests, draining marshes, destroy the existing and create new habitats. We are used to that now. Next, we’ll be creating tons of new organisms.
There is no way of avoiding that. But we can reduce the damage. And that’s where new policies should be implemented. Production of GM and other synthetic biology products should be tightly monitored and regulated. Not the way it’s done now when we often have just a bureaucratic burden slowing down research in academia.
Scientists and technologists should participate in regulating their own research. In my opinion, biosecurity issues should be considered first by toxicologists and ecologists, and then by non-scientist policy-makers and the related administration.
We don’t live in an ideal world. We cannot save every species and have a zero leak of artificial genes to the environment. But we can and should minimize the negative impacts of our activity on the planet’s ecosystem for our own sake and future generations. You don’t want to live in a garbage bin, and so won’t your descendants.