Overseeing Genetic Engineering

Overseeing Genetic Engineering

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

After what I read today, I think we do.

Today I read an article on the telegraph.co.uk entitled Genetically mutated rats could be released in Britain to solve rodent problem. Apparently scientists in the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute think they may be able to control populations of species, like rats, by genetic engineering. The proposal involves releasing into the wild males whose DNA has been altered to only produce viable Y chromosome sperm cells. These rats could then only give rise to other male rats. It is assumed that these offspring who presumably would pass on the mutation. And so the population of rats 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 troubles me that as this technology has developed we haven’t developed sufficient ethical or ecological frameworks to oversee this work.

It’s not genetic engineering I have a problem with
– it’s how it’s been applied

Apparently this technology has already been used in mosquitos to combat the spread of the Zika virus. The Zika virus has very worrying, potentially catastrophic, consequences for humans. If a woman is pregnant or becomes pregnant after contracting the virus it can have devastating effects on her developing foetus.

But despite how awful I think the Zika virus is I have a problem with this. 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. All species are dependent on the existence of certain other species. Think of the number of species, plant and animal, human depend on. Now think of the number of species that feed on mosquitoes.

If you greatly reduce the population of one species it has effects on other species and on habitats.

Do we even know what we don’t know?

Do we have enough information to know what other species and habitats would be affected by a sharp decline in the number of rats? I find it hard to believe that we do. Surely this kind of knowledge is vital. We need undertake proper risk assessments before engaging in this type of engineering.

It’s very unfortunate that a lot of the ethical questions regarding genetic engineering get reduced to facile arguments 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 is key. Especially when our understanding of other forms of life, even those closely related to our own, is still so limited. 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.

What oversight exists today?

I don’t work or study in this area so all I can tell you is what I found online.

Searching online I discovered that there are two important international protocols regarding this work.

“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. These protocols 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.

My concern is the lack of a co-ordinated approach and insufficient data on externalities

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. We must have a better idea of the risks involved. And then the scientists can work to minimise and mitigate the risks identified.

Honestly shouldn’t this be one of the most basic requirements in undertaking such experiments? Do we have this type of data? Are there risk assessments? What fallback strategies are in place in case something does go wrong?

There will always be an element of risk. But we can at least mitigate the risks.

It’s not possible to eliminate all risk. And groundbreaking sientific achievements occur at the edge of our understanding. And stepping out into the unknown is always risky. But we’re at a point of technological development where we can alter the very building blocks of life. That is amazing. Outstanding. But we must have a better understanding of the potential consequence of any work undertaken. And we must develop fallback strategies where possible.

Give me deeper understanding

We need a deeper understanding about how things work in nature, in biological systems, in here and now. And we need develop fallback plans in place for if (and when) things go wrong. Things inevitably go wrong from time to time. A deeper understanding will not only help safeguard what we’ve got, it will 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 assess the risks. Obviously they must. But who verifies that risk assessment is adequate? It should be ann independent body. That body can verify they are following the safety procedures they have to safeguard against any risks identified.

Our world isn’t properly globalised

I cannot even imagine a body, a global agency, being able to tell different countries what is acceptable in terms or work or research. It would take years if not decades for any consensus to be reached. And ensuring compliance to terms reluctantly agreed to would be a nightmare…

And will countries and private research companies ever be prepared to share information on what exactly they are working on? We need full disclosure of this sort of information so that we can properly identify risks and externalities. Moreover, we international regulations regarding risk assessments and fallback strategies. And we need an international agency to monitor these actions. These agencies would also need to intervene on projects that are having ill-effects.

Ordinary people should be able to request information on ongoing and historical projects. Access to more information and better educational resources is the best way to increase people faith in these technologies. Knowing there is proper oversight of this work would help too.

We’ve got the technology. Can we work together?


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