Tag Archive | "genetic engineering"

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GM Mosquitoes May Piggyback the Zika Virus

Posted on 09 April 2016 by Jerry

Genetic modification of a male mosquito whose offspring die before they mature and mate can be used to kill a certain kind of mosquito (Aedes aegypti) that carries dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever and now Zika virus.  Oxitec, a company out of the United Kingdom, produces this mosquito, with an engineered “self destruct” gene.

This company provides only one of three ways to drastically reduce the number of the offending mosquitoes.  The other two ways are using male mosquitoes that have been sterilized by low doses of radiation and/or a mosquito that is infected with the Wolbachia bacteria.  These bacteria do not infect humans but prevents eggs of infected females from hatching.  All of these approaches entail releasing large numbers of male mosquitoes into the environment.

The Oxitec genetically modified mosquito has been tested in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and a trial has been proposed in Florida.  Now the World Health Organization is very interested in the Oxitec mosquito as a viable way of stopping the spread of the Zika virus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tentatively agreed that the Oxitec genetically modified mosquito would not have a significant impact on the environment as a result of a trial in Florida.  The FDA report states, “The FDA found that the probability that the release of OX513A male mosquitoes would result in toxic or allergenic effects in humans or other animals is negligible.”  The FDA has to wait for public comment before giving final approval of the trial.  The process will probably take a few months.

Genetically modified insects have been introduced into the environment to protect or enhance crops for a number of years.  This however, will be the first GM insect introduced into the environment to have a direct effect on human beings. 

The problem is that use of this genetically modified mosquito has opened up quite a bit of controversy.  An opponent of the genetically modified mosquito, Jaydee Hanson a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, has been quoted in a Bloomberg news article published on 1/29/2016.  He said “Mosquitoes are food for lots of animals; We would still want to see studies of when birds and bats and amphibians eat these genetically modified animals.  They’re introducing into the ecosystem some genetic constructs that have never been there before.”

The same article quotes the Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry as arguing the opposite position.  He said, “You always get some people who say I don’t like genetic engineering because it’s a bad thing and we’re messing with nature.”  Referring to criticism that his mosquito might die out and another will come to the fore, he has also been quoted as saying, “So in the very worst case, where you find that you eliminated Aedes aegypti in an area and the Aedes albopictus went up, then you would actually be replacing a very dangerous vector with a far less effective one.”

You know that there are two other options that could be used to stop this type of mosquito that do not involve genetic modifications.  There are male mosquitoes of the same species that are exposed to low-grade radiation that sterilizes them and there are males that pass on the Wolbachia bacteria that make it so female eggs do not hatch.  Both of these two methods use males to mate with females to cause an end to successful fertilization and replication.

The question becomes why are we moving to choose the method that requires genetic modification.  The only answer that is probable is that we want to see a genetically altered alternative in the market.  This is a continuation of the government push for genetic engineering.   There have been numerous articles on this blog going back to the June 13, 2012 posting of Genetic Engineering Influence Peddling and Profit (see www.iamaguardian.com/category/protect/genetic-engineering/page/4/ ) that show the government’s bias to push for genetic modification products.

This support is hidden from the average citizen’s view and is the reason we are seeking a genetically engineered alternative.  There are just too many economic interests to be satisfied.  These, as an example, range from educators to scientists to entrepreneurs to established major competitors like Monsanto and to politicians.  The U.S. voter should rise up and call for a hiatus on approval of genetically modified products until there is proof that these products do not represent a threat to our health.

The FDA approved the first genetically modified animal intended to be human food in the AguAdvantage Salmon for sale and consumption in the U.S. sometime after November of last year.  Fortunately members of Congress disagreed.  On page 106 of the 2016 federal spending bill congress people added a requirement for the FDA to not allow the selling of this product in the U.S. until the agency puts in place labeling guidelines and “a program to disclose to consumers” whether a fish has been genetically modified.

We have a very short time to influence this genetic engineering issue.  We should insist that our candidates for president address this issue for us so we know where they stand on genetically engineered foods.  In all cases we should ask for regulation and oversight by a newly established governmental agency that dramatically slows the headlong rush to get these products into the market. 

Use the following links to access more information or read the source documents used to prepare this article.









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Disagree (and Agree) With Stephen Hawking

Posted on 26 January 2016 by Jerry

Dr. Stephen Hawking, professor and research director at Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, has expressed his belief that technology will be our undoing and will bring new ways for things to go wrong and end humanity’s future existence. Hawking said at a teleconference in Hong Kong, “Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.” He made substantially the same statements in response to questions when recording the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures on January 7, 2016.

He said that he believes our only hope is to spread out in space and colonize other worlds. He believes that it will take at least 100 years to establish a colony on another world in our solar system and the next 1000 years to spread to other solar systems. Our objective must be to establish self-sustaining colonies that are independent of our home planet Earth. This is because he believes we will kill ourselves on planet Earth and we need to be self-sustaining elsewhere for humanity to survive.

While we agree on the threats, we must be a pessimist about the space options and an optimist that human beings on this planet are taking the steps necessary for us to survive. We must support space colonization because of the knowledge we gain about surviving in hostile environments. We cannot believe we can colonize other solar systems. We cannot believe that colonies can support more than a few thousand humans, certainly not any real fraction of the seven plus billion population of the world.

Dr. Hawking has reliance on the science fictional development of a technology that allows our speed to approach that of light. The author sees no practical approach that permits us to significantly increase our speed.  This Hawking suggestion represents his ‘hail Mary’ pass about the future.

In our book, Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, it is shown it would take 18,000 years at 150,000 miles per hour, our current rate of maximum speed, to reach the nearest star. Even if you triple or quadruple this speed the time to reach the star dwarfs our ability to maintain life in outer space by a large margin. The book is explicit about our practical isolation in the universe (see Chapter 4 about travel to Alpha Centuri C).

Those readers who have the book Beyond Animal, Ego and Time or follow the blog www.iamaguardian.com know that the writer has warned about these hazards specifically with the exception of artificial intelligence. The author has warned about climate change, nuclear weapons and genetic engineering/synthetic biology. While we have also warned about the ozone depletion of the planet’s atmosphere, we have recently written blog articles about asteroids and meteors hitting the earth. On these threats there is agreement.

Although the writer wishes it were not so, he is not the fatalist that Dr. Hawking is proving to be. The outcomes we fear, while all legitimate, must be solved soon by us before our worst fears come to pass. There is certainly no option to wait for a century to solve these problems. The climate change outcome is dependent upon what humanity does in the next decade.

All of these problems should be dwelt with in the next few decades. We must have faith there is a solution to each of these hazards that has been spelled out in the blog articles over the last four years or so.

The only one we have not dealt with is the meteor strike on our planet and this too can be solved. We can interrupt the trajectory of a meteor or asteroid that we know is coming toward us. So far we are making too little an effort to identify these objects and are making no effort to learn how to modify trajectories. We just need to get going.

We must stay the course on each of the threats we face. None of them involve quick or easy fixes. We cannot give up as Dr. Hawking suggests. We can be fatalistic but not in his way. We must believe human beings will confront each threat and solve the underlying problems. We should believe in ourselves to triumph over problems we have created or we can foresee.

Use the following links to access additional information or the source documents used to support this article.





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Concerns Grow About CRISPR & Gene Editing

Posted on 16 December 2015 by Jerry

International controversy is growing about the potential of the new genetic engineering technologies, especially CRISPR. All sorts of groups are meeting to gain some measure of control over these technologies by setting up agreements on how to evaluate the ethical issues and control the experiments that are done.

These include in 2015 the Hinxton Group, the National Institute of Health, the Welcome Trust and various conferences like one hosted in Washington DC and another in Napa, California. In addition, interested parties are writing editorials that oppose strict limits on or banning alterations of the human germline using CRISPR etc. Most notably Frank Church at Harvard Medical School.

In a previous article on CRISPR (see the August 2015 posting on this web site under Genetic Engineering, “CRISPR”, Breakthrough or Trouble), there is an outline of the technological innovation. The problem is that the development of CRISPR/Cas9 and other technologies have made alteration of DNA too accessible and available even to amateurs playing in their garages. This technology is very accurate and extremely low cost.

As an example, an article in the December 3, 2015 issue of Nature magazine identifies the cost of a widely used genetic plasmid created with the CRISPR-Cas9 technology at $65 or less.  It is ordered online and shipped in the normal mail.  It requires little specialized training to use.

Most scientists say that serious alterations to genetics are still beyond the hobbyist. They say the CRISPR technology and understanding of it are not enough for mastery or major changes. They also claim that most institutions do all of their experiments as a function of government grants that are not given to hobbyists. Even though there is no direct regulation of the area they claim this indirectly regulates experimentation at least for now.

There are many issues but the one that troubles scientists most is the new ability to cheaply and effectively edit the genomes of all sorts of living entities. Particularly troubling are alternations to germline cells (sperm and eggs) in early human embryos. By definition, germline cell alterations can be passed to future offspring of the resulting human. This raises the specter of “designer babies” with their genes altered to reflect the wishes of expectant parents.

Beyond the specter of eugenics, it also recognizes that in theory altering the germline cells of human embryos can change a number of genetic traits. The elimination of babies carrying harmful, disease-ridden genes that inhabit various family trees is an objective most people would favor. Unfortunately, these potential applications remain a way off into the future.

Of course there are also positive possibilities from CRISPR. CRISPR-Cas9 is being used to develop “gene drives” that spread proper genetic changes quickly throughout an entire population. Groups that want to eradicate malaria are testing a couple of methods on mosquitos. One group is using the technology to produce DNA that is not infected by or is immune to the parasite P. falciparum that causes malaria. The drive represents creating two or more strings of the requisite DNA to be passed on to all offspring. Normally, a mutation is spread to only 50% of the offspring. The “gene drive” feature allows the new DNA to be passed to all offspring.

The second alternative is being worked on at the Imperial College London and involves a gene drive that inactivates genes that control egg production in female mosquitos. They believe this would be a way to drastically reduce the overall population of mosquitos.

The concerns raised with these two approaches relate to the use of gene drives and fear that genetic changes would wipe out mosquitos entirely in an area. This would eliminate a species that might fill a significant need in the local food chain. The fear is there would be no way to call back a change that produced unforeseen effects elsewhere in the DNA.

Already the CRISPR technology is being used to alter the genetic code of plants that are subject to some regulation.   This has been identified as a faster and more accurate way of engineering insect resistant strains of crops by disabling specific genes in wheat and rice. Disabling genes is not subject to the same regulation as introducing new genes into an organism i.e. in the European Union.   For this reason, some South Korean scientists see this method as a way to side step normal regulation imposed in the EU and elsewhere.

Genetic engineering is a technology area to be mastered and is a governmental objective in countries that have international ambitions. An article in the November 18, 2015 issue of Nature magazine quotes Minhua Hu, a geneticist at the Guangzhou General Pharmaceutical Research Institute as stating, “It’s a priority area for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.”

The availability and the ease of altering genes have prompted a host of new experiments including those overseas.   For example, the previously cited article discusses the flurry of experiments taking place in China and research papers being written that describe CRISPR-modified mammals such as sheep, goats, pigs, monkeys and dogs.

In addition, there is discussion in the same article about research in China to increase the muscle and hair growth of goats. So far 10 modified goat kids have larger muscles and longer fur than normal goats. The article calls them “designer livestock”.

Lei Qu, a genetic researcher from Yulin, who has implemented CRISPR-Cas9, is quoted as stating, “We believe gene-modified livestock will be commercialized after we demonstrate (that it) is safe.” He predicts it is a simple way to boost the sale of goat meat and cashmere sweaters from his province in China.

The dilemma faced by scientists the world over is that these new genome splicing technologies almost take these experiments out of their hands and put them into the hands of amateurs. This raises alarm bells in most of the scientific community. Most scientists want to rely on peer pressure to limit the behavior of hobbyists. They feel that if enough organizations voice concern and restraint this will cause neophytes to pause before they try major alterations of genetic material. They want self-regulation rather than have the government step in.

A strong case can be made for government regulation to protect the populous and more importantly the genetics of life itself. It would be so easy to alter the DNA of an organism and set it free in the environment that havoc might result. While government control would surely slow down progress and reduce the personal opportunities all these scientists have to make money, it would protect people and the genetics of all living organisms on the planet. The trade-off would be worth it from the perspective of a non-scientist.

Use the following links to obtain additional information or see the original articles used for reference in this article.





















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“CRISPR”, Breakthrough or Trouble?

Posted on 16 August 2015 by Jerry

No, the new CRISPR is not a better way to hold fresh produce in refrigerators.  Instead it is a new gene-editing tool that has been described as “Jaw dropping” by Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize for medicine.  A June 3, 2015 article in Nature Magazine goes on to say it will “allow researchers to quickly change the DNA of nearly any organism – including humans.  CRISPR is turning everything on its head.”

It allows researchers to alter the DNA of almost all organisms. This is undoubtedly good because it dramatically accelerates experimentation.  It should lead to many medical breakthroughs.  But are there risks?

To some extent CRISPR is a breakthrough that threatens all of us.  It revolutionizes an area that has no direct government regulation.   Researchers can now mix and match the genetic code of any set of disparate animals and do it cheaply.  Unfortunately, it only takes one mistake to create a new organism that we struggle to control.

CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.  CRISPR uses a part of a bacteria’s immune system.  A bacteria keeps copies of the dangerous viruses that prey on it so it can recognize and defend against those viruses should they try to infect it again.  This ability has been borrowed from the bacteria so genetic engineers can take a normal sequence of DNA and define it as the target that is to be cut out – the Cas9 enzyme cuts the DNA.

Its process involves a set of enzymes called Cas or CRISPR-associated proteins, which allow the bacteria to precisely cut out a section of DNA and cut it up as it would an invading virus.  The best-known enzyme, of a number of Cas enzymes, is called Cas9.  It is from the Streptococcus pyogenes or the bacteria that causes strep throat.   It forms the CRISPR/Cas9 system that is most often used.

This tool and new technique dramatically simplifies the ability to edit genomes or genetic chromosomes and has been “likened to editing the individual letters on any chosen page of an encyclopedia without creating any spelling mistakes.”

Professor Mello continued by saying “It’s one of things that you have to see to believe.  I read scientific papers like everyone else but when I saw it working in my own lab, my jaw dropped.  A total novice in my lab got it to work.  The CRISPR technique dramatically ‘lowers the threshold’ for carrying out ‘germ line’ gene therapy on human IVF embryos,” Professor Mello added.

A June 2015 article in Nature magazine quotes James Haber, a molecular biologist at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, as saying “That (CRISPR) effectively democratized the technology so that everyone is using it,” says Dr. Haber.  “It’s a huge revolution.”

The article offers another summary of the CRISPR technique,  “It relies on an enzyme called Cas9 that uses a guide RNA molecule to home in on its target DNA, and edits the DNA to disrupt genes or insert desired sequences.  Researchers often need to order only the RNA fragment; the other components can be bought off the shelf.  Total cost: as little as $30.”

An added benefit is the technique takes far fewer cycles than the earlier technology to make a genetic change in a species.  An article on gizmodo.com that ran 5/6/2015 states, “Researchers inject the CRISPR/Cas9 sequences into mouse embryos.  The system edits both copies of a gene at the same time, and you get the mouse in one generation.  With CRISPR/Cas9, you can also alter, say five genes at once, whereas you would have to had to go that same laborious, multi-generational process five times before.”

An article in the June 8, 2015 issue of Nature states about Jennifer Doudna, a CRISPR pioneer at UC Berkeley, that “Her worries began at a meeting in 2014 when she saw a postdoc present work in which a virus was engineered to carry the CRISPR components into mice.  The mice breathed in the virus, allowing the CRISPR system to engineer mutations and create a model for human lung cancer4.”

The article continued “Doudna got a chill; a minor mistake in the design of the guide RNA could result in a CRISPR that worked in human lungs as well.  ‘It seemed incredibly scary that you might have students who were working with such a thing.  It’s important for people to appreciate what this technology can do.’ ”

A June 25, 2015 bloomberg.com article stated, “CRISPR could encourage editing of all kinds of genomes that, if unsupervised, may present unanticipated risks,” says Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at New York University School of Medicine.  “The technique could be used to try to amplify genes thought to boost intelligence in adults.”  Use on animals and insects could also lead to ecological havoc, Caplan says.  “You could have a disaster on your hands, and you don’t have to touch a human to do it,” he said.

As documented in a previous article, see “We Need Worldwide Regulation of Synthetic Biology” http://iamaguardian.com/1680/we-need-worldwide-regulation-of-synthetic-biology/, regulation of Synthetic Biology and Genetic Engineering is split amongst five different federal government departments.  Depending on the development, the organizations that have partial responsibilities are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Commerce Department and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

There needs to be absolute regulatory responsibility for genetic engineering and synthetic biology.  When we have small researchers and venture funded startup companies articulating opportunities and experimenting with alterations to life’s genetic codes with only self-regulation or murky departmental responsibility, we must call a halt.  There should not be the freedom to take all of these risks in the name of profit.

We should be writing letters to the editor and letters to our elected representatives to tell them of our expectations.  We need to speak out against self-regulation and murky, conflicting regulations by multiple government departments.  We need to lobby for new legislation and a single department to assume regulatory oversight.

Use the following links to gain additional information or access the original documents used in this article.



http://gizmodo.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-crispr-the-new-tool-1702114381 (scroll down)





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Unregulated Chimeras Continue

Posted on 11 March 2015 by Jerry

Genetic engineers are again giving mice a sneak peek at human existence.  The series of experiments continue with engineers marrying human brain tissue with the brains of a mouse. The question is what do we expect to learn and how many genetic engineers can repeat the same experiments to what end?  Do we not know that human brain cells or brain tissue injected into mice brains significantly enhances their memory and problem solving abilities?

The most recent research projects involved use of the FOXP2 gene that in humans is linked to the difficulty of forming words.  As part of the research it was discovered that there was a difference between this gene in humans and those in chimpanzees.   This subtle difference is thought to be one of the keys to the development of language capabilities in humans as opposed to chimpanzees.

This initiated a series of experiments by various researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig Germany.  One group of researchers put the human version of the gene in mice brains.  They showed that the “humanized” mice had greater complexity in their calls of alarm to other mice and much greater frequency of these calls.

A subsequent study dealt with the straitum, a part of the mouse brain.  This is the region of the brain that is involved in the rate of learning in mice.  The issue that was raised was would the human FOXP2 gene affect the rate of learning in mice.

This study looked at both types of learning; consciously breaking a task into its constituent parts and the habituating of activity so that the sequence of tasks becomes an unconscious repetition.  For example, the study showed that humanized mice performed faster than normal mice in mazes that involved both types of learning.

Of interest, the performance was the same in mazes where just one type of learning was involved.  It was felt the advantage of the humanized mice was they were much quicker to habituate repetitive tasks than the normal mice.

This follows research of Steve Goldman that use Glial cells (thought of as junk genes that support the human brain) to see if the genes could boost mouse intelligence.  An article in the High Tech Society states, “Previously, he inserted fully grown Glial cells into an adult mouse, and watched as their intelligence and memory leapt off the charts.”

The article continued, “He experimented with mouse pups, using immature glial cells from donated human fetuses.   Each mouse pup received over 300,000 immature glial cells, which, inside of the mouse brain, quickly matured and took over for the mouse glial cells, multiplying to some 12 million, and completely replacing the native cells.  Adult mice who had received this transfusion exhibited memory capacity of about 4 times that of an ordinary mouse.”

The point is that these experiments are repeated hundreds if not thousands of times by researchers who are on a learning curve or hope to get a different outcome from each experiment.  It multiplies considerably the odds that a humanized mouse or mice may find a way to the wild and cause incalculable harm to our environment.

Imagine the difficulty we would have catching and killing such a humanized mouse.  Its reactions would be different.  It could learn different strategies to try as it infests the human environment.  It would react in more effective ways to other predators that would hunt it (e.g. cats).

These experiments with mice are today the only public source describing experiments that are underway.  Other experiments that mix the genes of disparate species of animals are taking place out of the public view.   These and these mice experiments are what we need to regulate and control.

Other than NIH funded projects where experimenters have to adhere to government mandates these experiments continue to have only self-imposed regulation.  Our government continues to take a hands-off policy to regulating these types of experiments.  That would change in a nanosecond if one of these experiments went awry and one of these humanized animals gained access to our environment.

Government regulation, control and oversight are necessary.  As the previous article about synthetic biology states, this regulation needs to be consistent and worldwide in scope.  This is the only way to minimize the risk to those who inhabit the planet.

Use the following links to obtain more information or access the source documents for this article.





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