Overseeing Genetic Engineering

Do we need world-wide agreed frameworks regarding how genetic engineering is undertaken in order to safeguard species (including our own) and ecological systems generally? And do we need an international body overseeing this work?

Today I read an article on the telegraph.co.uk entitled Genetically mutated rats could be released in Britain to solve rodent problem. According to the article, scientists in the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute think they may be able to control populations of species, like rats, by releasing into the wild males whose DNA has been altered to only produce viable Y chromosome sperm cells so that these rats could only give rise to other male rats, who presumably would pass on the mutation, and so the population would decrease as the numbers of females kept dropping.

I think it’s fantastic that we now have the technology to edit genes but it is very worrying that as this technology has developed we haven’t developed sufficient ethical or ecological frameworks regarding just how and when such technologies can be used.

Apparently this technology has already been used in mosquitos to combat the spread of the Zika virus. I think the Zika virus has very worrying, potentially catastrophic, consequences for humans, because of the effects it can have on developing foetuses. That said I think that engineering population decline in other species in this way raises huge ethical and ecological questions that we simply cannot ignore.

Nothing in our world acts in isolation. Everything has dependencies – things that they are dependent on, and things that are dependent on them. If you greatly reduce the population of one species it has effects on other species and on habitats. Do we even have the data necessary to know what other species and how habitats would be affected by such a decline and to what extent? Surely this is vital. We need undertake proper risk assessments before engaging in this type of engineering. No?

It’s very unfortunate that a lot of the ethical questions regarding genetic engineering get reduced to facile arguements about whether we have the “right to play God”. These debates so easily descend into futile and besides-the-point “Religion v Science” contests.

However the question of what right we have to interfere with other species when our understanding of other forms of life, even those closely related to our own, is still so limited is one that we must discuss and find some sort of workable answers to – and these answers shoud be considered when building a framework of guidelines to govern this type of work and research.

Searching online I discovered that “There are two major international protocols that address genetically modified organisms, the Cartagena Protocol of 2000 and the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol of 2010. They are attached to the Convention on Biological Diversity of 1993. They apply only to transboundary actions; they do not apply to use or transit of GMOs within countries.” (source) It doesn’t sound as if these protocols are even applicable in this case.

I do think it’s possible that we can genetically engineer other species for their own benefit – and naturally for our species benefit too. I’m not in any way disputing the value and potential good of this technology. But surely we need much better safeguards in place – like gathering data on the interplay and interdependencies of different species so that we can have a better idea of the risks involved and work to minimise and mitigate those identified – and honestly shouldn’t this be one of the most basic requirements in undertaking such experiments? Do we have this type of data? Are risk assessments being done? If these types of experiments are going on, is there concurrent research going on examining what fallback strategies could be used in case something does go wrong?

I know that it’s not possible to eliminate risk. And groundbreaking sientific achievements occur at the edge of our understanding of things. And stepping out into the unknown is always risky. But we’re now getting to a point of technology and understanding where if we gather sufficient information about how things work in the here and now, and develop fallback strategies for if (and when) things go wrong (things inevitably go wrong from time to time) then that understanding will not only help safeguard what we’ve got, it should also help illuminate the path into the unknown. At least partially, no?

Now for all I know the Roslyn Institute may be undertaking this type of risk assessment research. I don’t know enough about the work they do or how they do it to know this. But if they are, should this be recorded by an independent body who can check that they are following the procedures they have set down to safeguard against any risks identified?

Such a body, a global agency, would not be charged with telling different countries what is acceptable in terms or work or research – that would be far too contentious and would likely take years if not decades for any consensus to be reached. Instead there should be international regulations which ensured risk assessments are carried out, strategies to combat those risks be identified, and where possible fallback procedures should be put in place (so for example, if you’re testing a genetic modification of a vegetable you keep samples of the unmodified crop and their complete genome on record – presumably this is already standard practice?). This body would then be tasked with keeping records of these risk assessments and the procedures identified to mininmise the risks, and there would be periodic audits to ensure standards and procedures were being followed.

If there were an international independent body who was overseeing any work or research in genetic engineering it’s possible that they could identify potential cross-risks or benefits even across projects gobally. It is possible that something which happens in a population or ecosystem that is the result of a genetically modified organism being introduced may not be readily identified as being caused by the introduction of the GMO. Having proper frameworks to record all work being carried out and proper communication on a global level – through an international agency? – would hopefully improve detection of these kind of occurrences.

Proper ethical and ecological frameworks for genetic engineering would do more than protect us from potential risks, if constructed correctly it would improve our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of life. That’s not overblown nonsense – it’s obvious.


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