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Modifying Mosquitoes Sets Precedent for Gene Edits In The Wild

Modified organisms save millions of lives, or cause chaos

Photo by Syed Ali on Unsplash

Technological advancement imposes new moral quandaries.

The new reality is that people are increasingly able to make changes to DNA to serve specific purposes. Although genetically modified organisms (GMO) have been around for decades, the field of genetic engineering is entering a new phase due to converging factors of costs, regulations, and science. One of the organisms at the new forefront of the new moral questions surrounding genetic modification is the mosquito.

Different laboratories around the world are exploring ways to make genetic changes to mosquitoes for the expressed purpose of releasing them into the wild. Up until now, GMOs have been created primarily for controlled use, to produce higher yields of tomatoes, corn, or cotton in specific times and places. Genetically modified mosquitoes, such as the ones being bred at Imperial College London and the University of California Institute, are being bred for potential release into the wild. This imposes new implications in the GMO space.

Using the gene drive technique, scientists can force a genetic modification to be passed on to nearly 100% of offspring, resulting in the permanent spread of a new gene throughout a population. Using this technique, it is possible to change the DNA of mosquitoes to make them less susceptible to carrying diseases such as malaria or to make them produce infertile offspring resulting in their eradication.

Mosquito-borne diseases cause hundreds of thousands of deaths per year, making the mosquito a prime candidate for the moral debate about the genetic modification of creatures in the wild. If ever there was a candidate for edits or eradication, the mosquito would be it. Yet the potential for unforeseen ecological consequences and the establishment of precedent moving forward is enough to give scientists pause.

The manner by which the genetic modification of organisms is debated, developed, and deployed could determine how GMO technology proceeds. In the coming decades, this will become increasingly relevant as the convergence of three factors will result in the rapid growth of the GMO space for wide-ranging purposes.

  1. Falling Costs: Since its discovery, CRISPR has grown to be a relatively cheap and easy tool to edit genes. This has resulted in the proliferation of laboratories embarking on their own genetic engineering projects, from creating more robust crops to the morally questionable pursuits of editing genes of humans or self-experimentation by do-it-yourself biohacking. Add to this the falling costs of sequencing genomes and it will become faster, cheaper, and easier for scientists to both read and write genes of any given organism.
  2. Fractured Oversight and Enforcement: Countries across the world have taken different approaches to genetically modified organisms, from outright bans to passing them based on substantial equivalence. Countries also have different policies around genetic engineering research, with their own ethics panels and review processes. A lack of a unified global oversight agency, such as that of the International Atomic Energy Agency for nuclear research, means that research, testing, and deployment can migrate to whichever country has the most favorable regulations, incentives or policies.
  3. Rising Sophistication: CRISPR and gene drives are two examples of the growing sophistication of genetic engineering techniques. Oxitec is a company that produces modified mosquitoes that are self-limiting, causing females to die before reaching sexual maturity and males to die after 10 generations, ensuring modified genes don’t persist in the wild. Reversal gene drives, which could act as an antidote for a gene drive that needs to be undone, have been proposed but not yet tested. With increasing variation and sophistication we are entering a golden age of genetic engineering techniques to produce desired results.
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

The convergence of these factors will continue to foster decentralization in the genetic engineering space. Universities, private labs, nonprofits, and corporations will be increasingly able to explore the use of GMOs to serve various purposes beyond robust crops or disease eradication. Pest control, weed control, pollution control, or invasive species control could be pursued through the modification of flora or fauna. The frontiers of GMO space for private use, public use, or for deployment in the wild are anybody’s guess.

For those who see wild mosquito gene drives as a clear moral case for leveraging technology to alleviate suffering, it is important to consider the delineation between acceptable and unacceptable modification of genes. If manipulation or eradication of mosquitoes is acceptable, then does it not make sense to do the same for Lyme disease-carrying ticks, sleeping sickness-carrying flies, or bubonic plague-carrying fleas? From there, should domesticated or wild birds be modified to avoid carrying avian flu? Or all farm animals to mitigate possible future pandemics? Or why not the human genome itself to reduce susceptibility to any number of diseases?

Without centralized governance and enforcement of genetic modification, decisions regarding what is and isn’t acceptable will be decentralized. The transparent and successful deployment of an anti-malaria mosquito could be heralded as a triumph of science and portend the decline of insect-borne disease, however, it could also signal a new age of increasing ecological manipulation. Independent teams will increasingly be able to decide which organisms to edit and for what purpose.

Yuval Noah Harari outlines the current landscape of existential threats to humanity as being issues that cannot be solved by any single country. Nuclear war, ecological collapse, and social disruption due to technology can only be mitigated through global cooperation. Genetic engineering of organisms, and specific gene drives, fall under the same category as no single country’s actions can effectively control this technology.

  • If one jurisdiction bans research into GMOs, research and testing can relocate elsewhere.
  • If one country opposes the release of gene drive organisms in its territory, there is little it can do to prevent modified organisms from neighboring countries from entering unabated.
  • If a majority of countries support the release of gene drive organisms while a minority oppose it, who is to decide where the line is drawn and how governance is implemented and enforced?

It goes without saying that there is always the possibility that genetic modification tools could be used for harmful purposes, such as creating bioweapons. The decentralization of genetic engineering projects could equally cure diseases as cause pandemics, and given the falling barriers to entry into the GMO space, this will likely become a growing threat. The actions of one country or one laboratory or one scientist could have global implications.

The possibility of alleviating suffering on a massive scale creates the moral imperative to explore this space transparently and responsibly. The possible threat of the misuse of genetic engineering and gene drives also makes it imperative for international oversight and cooperation. It is an unprecedented moral question that is being forced upon the world.

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