Thursday, April 21, 2011
Bioengineering--time for limits?
(if the video isn't showing up in google reader, just click through to the post and it should show up)
This TED talk is by Paul Root Wolpe, and addresses the need to limit biological engineering in science. Given that's my field, I thought this would be a talk that touched on a myriad of issues with a focus on genetic engineering, but instead, it seemed to be a talk that pandered to pedestrian fears---pets have been marketed that glow in the dark--it's only a short time before we can make humans that can glow in the dark! While a striking example of the possibilities of bioengineering, it focuses only on the macro, the thing that any person could look at and feel like science has gone too far.
Mr. Wolpe first speaks about the transition of evolution from passive to the evolution of humans as affected by our own changes to the environment. A good example of this was the domestication of cattle for milk by Northern Europeans. The great majority of Northern Europeans evolved to be lactose tolerant yet groups without the same cultural history are lactose intolerant (see here). If you don't drink milk throughout your life, a gene that allows for the digestion of lactose after infancy isn't a gene that makes you "fit" in an evolutionary sense. So, more traditional hunter-gatherer populations do not have the same genes that populations with domesticated cows posses.
The newest form of evolution, Mr. Wolpe says, is evolution directed by science. And that is something we should apparently be quite scared of...the montages of cloned animals, transgenic animals, all of the unnatural things science has begun to research flow across the screen. All that is missing is the scary apprehensive soundtrack.
Unfortunately, the use of such imagery is neither helpful nor the whole story. First, if you want to be spur discussion about the negative outcomes and scenarios caused by genetic engineering, cloning animals aren't the thing you should be scared about (biological weaponry, anyone?)
But in general, the biggest problem I see is in this talk is the lack of explanation behind bioengineering-related experiments. Did the speaker mention why we're trying to make animals glow in the dark? Or what that does for science? No. Maybe there are some fringe scientists out there that just want to make the next glow-in-the-dark animal, but fundamentally, the capability of making something glow for a reason allows experimentalists to study a great variety of problems: where do certain RNA travel in a cell? When an animal has cancer, does a certain drug help shrink the tumor? And in our lab, every single one of us has used "glow-in-the-dark" technology to test our tools so we can improve and refine the properties that make them helpful in studying malaria and other diseases.
Instead, you say "It'll be a short time before we can make people glow in the dark."
...um, I wouldn't be so sure about that. The amount of institute review required for any human study is great, and what you are suggesting is creation of a transgenic human, which isn't going to pass. This is not the 1999 episode of Batman Beyond focused on splicers---teenagers who inject animal DNA to "be cool."
At the same time, should there be control of genetically modified pets? Yes. Should we carefully consider using genes in agriculture and meat farming? Absolutely. But genetic modification has not been happening only in the past five years...all one need do is look at a pug to know that we have been playing God for thousands of years.
Yes, it is true that we use animals and genetically engineer them to try and produce drugs. But if you don't provide the other side of the story, it seems like a terrible idea, and obviously the wrong choice. But saying that some drugs are extremely difficult to produce industrially, and we don't have the technology to simply synthesize them, you change the tenor of the argument. People are going wild that cows are producing human breast milk. Or, yes, we are hooking up monkey brains to computers in order to see what their brain is doing to respond to movement, and then having those signals control a prosthetic arm. While a scary thought, this is important technology designed to advance the field of human prosthesis, plain and simple.
Of course there are going to be limits. Even though some think the future involves engineering a tree to grow into the shape of a bookshelf, right now, science has a responsibility to continue on this path.
Frankly, it disappoints me that this talk did not address the possible successes of bioengineering, as well as some of the other things we should be worried about. Just because a virus is not as pretty or as understandable as a transgenic goat that produces spider silk proteins does not mean that viruses are not entities able to be biologically engineered. The lab I presented as a teaching assistant used mutated viruses as the electrode material in a battery. It's an incredible technology. But any technology can be used ill, and that's the whole point. Look at technology as neutral, and then see the possibilities, both good and bad. Then and only then should you argue about ethics.