Genetic modification is ready to serve humanity

The odious mosquito inserts her proboscis and transmits disease. (Courtesy of John Ragai via Flickr)

On Oct. 7, 2020, Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in the field of gene editing. On top of breaking barriers as the first two women jointly awarded the chemistry prize, Charpentier and Doudna’s recognition is a huge step forward for the controversial field of genetic engineering. 

Humans have been practicing a form of genetic engineering ever since we started cultivating plants and livestock. Grafting two plants together dates back centuries in both the East and the West, and selective breeding was a staple technique used by even the earliest farmers. These techniques aren’t using advanced technology to target and change certain genes, but nevertheless the point of these exercises was to eliminate or diminish unwanted characteristics and promote the characteristics that the farmer found most useful. Wild cabbage was bred to create broccoli, brussel sprouts and domesticated cabbage. Cattle were bred to increase their edible volume. This was all uncontroversial, but it was all gene editing.

Today the techniques have changed, but the underlying mission has stayed the same: improve quality of life. Public opinion has shifted, however. Currently, more than half of adults in the U.S. believe that using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a food source is worse for your health than using non-modified foods. Of those, 88 percent believe that GMO foods will lead to health problems for the general populace. There is no such thing as non-modified food, but there is a stigma against food modified in a lab. 

Part of this bias may be due to the way direct modification was introduced in the 1950s. In order to increase variation in plants so that selective breeding could be done more efficiently, scientists bombarded plants with radiation. This process, known as mutation breeding, was part of an effort to discover a peaceful use for the nuclear knowledge that was proliferating in the aftermath of World War II. Radiation was poorly understood by the general public in the mid-20th century. The possibilities of mutation due to radiation caused imagination to run rampant over reality: 1954’s “Them!” stars giant insects caused by nuclear testing in the area. 

The 1957 film “Beginning of the End” has grasshoppers eat mutated plants and then grow to enormous sizes. Even some of the most famous pop culture characters that exist today were formulated along these lines. In 1961 the Fantastic Four were given their powers by cosmic radiation. Spider-Man has had eight movies over the last 20 years, and he was famously bitten by a radioactive spider. These examples don’t insinuate that people really believed that radiation could produce superheroes and skyscraper-sized insects, but they do reflect a general fear of the unknown that the gene modification of radiation could produce.

Radiation is no longer the bugaboo of the modern day, but fear of radiation has been displaced by fear of targeted gene editing, like the Crispr-Cas9 technique pioneered by Charpentier and Doudna. Some of this fear may be well founded: There’s no definite way to know that a gene edited plant or animal won’t act similar to an invasive species. Presumably freed from some ailment or deficit that was limiting its growth, it is possible that a plant may grow at a pace that is higher than wanted by its creators. Nature is a delicate balance, and intervening must be done in a reasonable way that weighs the potential costs and benefits.

Mosquito reduction or elimination may not seem to be a worthwhile risk for something with unknown side effects, but that initial intuition would be wrong. Malaria, a disease transmitted mainly through mosquito bites, kills around 400,000 people per year. Zika and West Nile virus, while less deadly, are also transmitted into the human populace via mosquito. No other creature kills humans at the rate of mosquitoes. Despite the environmental damage that may be wreaked by the adjustment of the other flora and fauna to a lack of mosquitoes, gene editing to reduce mosquito population is a clear path to saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

With this sort of benefit in mind, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency and Florida state government recently came to an agreement that will release over 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes into Florida. This is no small action and could potentially disrupt the entire food web of Florida, and possibly beyond. 

The plan in Florida is to introduce a strain of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, a spreader of the Zika virus, that are genetically engineered so that their female offspring die off. Mosquitoes bite to extract human blood, and in this exchange mosquitoes can transfer any diseases they are carrying. Mosquitoes only bite so that they can extract iron and proteins in human blood and transfer it to the fertilized eggs that will be the next generation of that mosquito’s bloodline. As such, the only mosquitoes that bite, and thus have the chance to transfer diseases, are adult females. The firm Oxitec produced a modified mosquito whose female offspring can’t grow out of the larval stage. No adult females means no blood sucking, which means no disease transmission and no new mosquito larvae being produced. 

A similar plan was executed in Brazil, where the Aedes Aegypti mosquito population was cut by 89 to 96 percent. With such a large reduction in mosquito population, the benefits move beyond that of just public health. Thousands of tracts of land would become more usable and see an increase in value if mosquitoes died out. Even day-to-day activities like gardening or talking walks could become much more pleasant in the absence of mosquitoes. 

2020 has already shown the effects of disease and failures of public health. COVID-19 has killed over a million people; over the last 10 years, malaria has killed over four million. We have to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, but gene editing has given us a tool to end malaria. Genetically modified mosquitoes should not end in Florida or with Aedes Aegypti: they should be of all species, placed all over the globe. For months the world has lived under a new biological terror. It’s time we release a new biological salvation.

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