‘What you see in your mind’s eye is a picture of a mouse with an ear on it. That’s the media version of GM isn’t it?’
Is that what you see when you think about Genetic Modification?
Or do you see the next technology wave, one that is already transforming medicine, food production and much more?
Genetic Modification, more commonly known as Genetic Engineering (GE), both excites and terrifies. Our ability to transform the living world has advanced rapidly in the last decade. Will we use it well?
The guy who pictures a mouse with an ear on it was one of many respondents to a study carried out by the Royal Society. It is called ‘Potential Uses for Genetic Technologies’ and you can find it here.
The Royal Society, this country’s leading scientific academy, would like genetic engineering to proceed with the consent of the public. It is concerned that the subject is misunderstood and the mouse with the ear is a perfect example.
But the Vacanti Mouse, as it was called, was not in fact the result of genetic engineering at all. It was produced by creating an ear-shaped mould from cow cartilage cells and implanting this under the skin of the mouse. It was created in 1997, even before the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Sequencing Project really kick-started the era of genetic engineering.
So what is Genetic Engineering? Let’s start from the top and work backwards…
All living things, from the tiniest bacteria through all living creatures to you and I are made from cells and the function of these cells is determined by their genes.
Just as this article is composed of the individual letters of the alphabet, genes are composed of the four individual bases of DNA – adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), thymine (T). Genes instruct the cell, telling it which proteins to make and thus determining whether it is, for instance, a liver cell or a brain cell.
If you alter the letters of the genes you alter the function of the cell, which in turn alters the organism itself. This requires that you first are able to actually read all of these DNA bases, which for humans number three billion.
Next you need to identify those sequences of bases that constitute the genes (most of the full DNA sequence is ‘non-coding’). Then you must decipher the instructions that these genes are relaying, which can be done by trial and error – delete a gene and see what results.
Finally you need to be able to alter the instructions at will, altering for example an ‘A’ into a ‘G’.
This genetic engineer’s tool-box is now available. The cost and speed of DNA sequencing has fallen dramatically since 2003 while a new technique called CRISPR has revolutionised our ability to edit the genetic code.
So we are all set to engineer life itself and it is this alarming prospect that has prompted the Royal Society to open a debate, an initiative already well under way in the USA.
Genetic engineering is the most important science of the 21st century and I say that with due respect to digital communications.
Since I started my Breakthrough Biotech newsletter in 2011, genetic engineering has become central to biotechnology, progress has been dramatic and it is already offering extraordinary money-making opportunities far beyond the narrow and misleading City definition of biotech as simply early stage medical research.
I want you to get involved but not blindly. I want you to understand what it is all about, and that includes both the underlying science but also the debate around its use.
Individual comments can sometimes hit the spot with uncanny accuracy and the Royal Society paper includes several that do just that.
Let’s start with ‘GM has the potential to solve world hunger.’
GM crops, notably corn, soya as well as cotton, are already grown on 185 million hectares of land, an area seven times greater that the United Kingdom. According to David Craik of the University of Queensland, at least three billion meals derived from GM plants have been eaten by people and animals over the last fifteen years ‘without a single substantiated case of harm.’
Even hardened anti-GM campaigner Mark Lynas has changed his mind. For an explanation of why he now supports GM crops read his new book ‘Seeds of Science’.
GM crops are well established. Only a small and diminishing minority objects to them and there are great hopes that genetic engineering will produce crops that can better withstand the impact of climate change and contain the nutrients so desperately needed in the developing world.
What about animals? ‘Is there some way,’ asks one Royal Society respondent, ‘that we can genetically modify cows so that they don’t fart?’
Well actually, yes.
Researchers in Canada are analysing the genomes of Holstein cattle to find the genes associated with farting. But while this could lead to selective breeding of cows with low-fart genes, this is not a form of genetic engineering.
The only GM animal approved for human consumption is the AquAdvantage salmon which incorporated a gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon into the Atlantic Salmon in order to make the latter grow more quickly.
Approval for this took 25 years, so while genetic engineering of plants is largely uncontroversial regulators are still wary of approving the genetic engineering of farm animals to, for instance, grow more quickly or produce less fatty meat.
Genetic engineering of animals is the next boundary and the possibilities are intriguing…
We can control or even wipe out mosquitoes by editing their genomes so that they cannot reproduce….
We can engineer animals so that they do not pass zoonotic diseases such as avian flu to humans…
And we could use genome editing to make viral DNA inactive, thus making it possible to transplant organs from pigs to humans without triggering an immune response.
This would be good news for the human race and yet it makes us uncomfortable…
‘The measures they’re trying to take to stop mosquitoes spreading viruses…,’ went one quote, ‘I was thinking about the justification of trying to wipe out a species just because it badly affects us.’
When it comes to human medicine, gene therapy has already been successfully used to treat conditions such as Bubble Boy Syndrome and inherited blindness. Genetically engineered immune cells have been used to beat cancer, while genetic profiling of cancer can enable us to treat each individual with the appropriate drugs – so-called personalised medicine.
Few would wish to prevent these, any more than they would object to editing the genes of tobacco plants so that become a source of cheap biopharmaceuticals.
Genetic engineering is controversial because once done it cannot be undone. While GM crops appear to be entirely safe to eat they are bound to have some impact on the natural environments in which they grow.
It is also true – and this is a point that proponents tend to ignore – that genetic engineering can create things that could not have occurred naturally, such as sewing fish genes into the Camelina plant so that it becomes a source of Omega-3 fatty acids.
In human medicine we usually talk of editing somatic cells. These are ‘adult’ cells that cannot be inherited. But once we start editing germline cells or human embryos we are affecting the lives of future generations. Genetic engineering could ensure that our babies will not get cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s. Most are in favour of that, but not of ‘designer babies’.
How worried should we be? Some people are uncomfortable with any such tampering with nature: ‘Everyone is made in God’s image, and if you are changing all of this you are messing with God’s work’ said one.
And what is acceptable to someone is not acceptable to another: ‘Cultural differences, beliefs….every society is different.’
In the absence of any global regulatory authority, genetic engineering is likely to advance much faster in some countries than others.
And yet there is one big obstacle to genetic engineering…
While we know that a handful of conditions are caused by identifiable and potentially correctable DNA mutations, we are finding that most are caused by the interplay of multiple genes which may or may not be activated by epigenetic factors (external to the DNA).
But the very fact that we are having this debate tells you just how far genetic engineering has progressed and that things are moving fast.
The public is worried about the ethics, about genetic technologies falling into the wrong hands to create, for example, deadly viruses, and that ‘the profit motive and social good are diametrically opposed.’
But there is also a palpable sense that we entering new ground and need to be brave.
My favourite quote in the Royal Society survey is this: ‘This could be our new opportunity. We don’t know what happens when we choose to do anything. When the humans walked out of Africa they didn’t have a map. They just went ‘Let’s give it a go.’