Genetically modified mosquitoes

(Christy Hemphill) #1

Since it’s “Bioethics” month at BioLogos, what do you all think of CRISPR modified mosquitoes to eradicate malaria? Could save 400,000 kids a year. On the other hand, what do people think of the ethics of a bunch of Europeans telling Africa how to fix its ecological issues? Is this some kind of scientific colonialism?

(Stephen Matheson) #2

Great article, really interesting. I knew there were gene drive experiments going on but I didn’t know how they were tackling it. The doublesex strategy is very interesting, to me, because instead of making mosquitoes that are specifically resistant to malaria (i.e. to carrying it), they are trying to make the mosquitoes unable to bite and to reproduce. So there’s little to no risk that the population will evolve to become a better carrier or anything like that.

I haven’t read detailed analysis but the two main risks I can think of are some kind of ecological disruption caused by the loss of the mosquito population, and some kind of escape of the gene drive so it affects other (beneficial) insects. The latter problem is technological, and presumably solvable. The former is probably a lot harder to predict or assess in advance. But I don’t know.

For me, the issue of “scientific colonialism” is huge. The gene drive would remodel biological communities by suppressing or eradicating an insect population, and that is a real and local effect that the local inhabitants have to live with. Even without the legacy of colonialism in Africa (a huge factor ethically in my view), the need for local support would seem central, ethically speaking.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

It’s all well and fine for them to demonstrate how responsible and careful they’re being to keep the experiment contained, which the article spends much of its words describing. But the potentially serious implications of it seem to have been left un-discussed, at least in this article. It sounds to me like they aren’t really just eradicating malaria (the noble goal that proponents seek to have us all focus on), but we’re really speaking of eradicating mosquitoes. And is it sensible to think that this happens on just one continent? Isn’t a release anywhere a release everywhere? But even if it were “just Africa”, aren’t mosquitoes part of a food chain for many birds? Aren’t they pollinators? Those are the questions I would want extensively discussed before I would ever think to support such an idea - and those are just the questions that occur to me, a non-biologist. Imagine how many more complications and bad scenarios critical biologists could ostensibly be concerned about, given the inter-relatedness of ecosystems! (that is, if their professionally-informed humility at least keeps pace with their techno-enthusiasm). It seems to me like this is just a lot more kids playing with matches. That they know how to do this carefully so as not to prematurely release anything should have been a no-brainer and the least of our concerns here relative to the prospect of this actually being tried.

(Stephen Matheson) #4

(Jay Johnson) #5

It’s always the “Law of Unintended Consequences” that scares me. But, in a lot of ways, these discussions remind me of the early fears about genetically modified crops. Without those advances in yields and resistance to disease, who knows whether the globe could support 6-7 billion people?

(Stephen Matheson) #6

This one is especially hard, IMO, because the human toll of malaria is so high. The article quotes Kevin Esvelt, an expert on ethics and gene drive technology whose role in general has been to warn science about moving too fast on gene drives, as being in favor of the plan. After all, there is one consequence of the status quo that is the opposite of “unforeseen”: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.

(Jay Johnson) #7

I’m surprised this hasn’t been criticized for violating biblical principles. You know, "male and female he created them … "

(Christy Hemphill) #8

Just the one species that carries malaria. Plenty of others would still be around to bless our lives, including the ones that carry zika and dengue and yellow fever. Mosquitoes are the deadliest creatures on earth.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

Thanks for sharing that article, Stephen. That was exactly the discussion I was speaking of, and it seemed to represent potential concerns pretty well, so far as I would know - at least at a lay discussion level. I didn’t (don’t) find it much reassuring when authoritative voices there make comments like “…it’s hard to see a downside to this…” nestled in with information about how there are certain breeds of fish that would have to adapt to a new feeding niche. Scientists are usually reminding all the rest of us that incredulity is not a good guide for reality. So the whole “they aren’t any direct good to us…” routine seems disappointingly short sighted. But on the other hand, if it is just one species among many (as Christy reminds me here), and that neighboring species will quickly adapt to fill any empty niches, I can also resonate with the supportive side too.

Still, it is unseemly arrogance to look back in history and mock all the past sentiments people had about things seemingly useless to us in any obvious way that we now pride ourselves in knowing better about - and then imagine that we are the first generation to arrive on earth who have finally eradicated all those ignorant notions and are the first to truly grasp and correctly judge between essential and non-essential constituents of our ecosystem. That arrogance reeks of “privileged position” and totally violates our principle of mediocrity which should have scientists taking a good hard look in the mirror under the light of some of their own cherished principles.

(Stephen Matheson) #10

I understand your point, and share it to a small extent, but I think you are overplaying the hand here. The opinions of scientists on this matter are far from speculative. The cost of inaction is horrific, is quantifiable, and with all due respect is not one you or I should get a major vote on. (Personally, that’s where I would use the phrase “privileged position.”) The concern about unintended ecological consequences is not trivial, but neither should it be elevated beyond its scope. But the goal is to eradicate a single species of mosquito, in a world where ecosystems are already ravaged by human activities that are not (and never will be) subjected to the kind of scrutiny you seem to want. In this world of rampant extinction and remodeling of communities by “invasive” species, we don’t need to pretend that we have no idea what will happen when the curse of Anopheles gambiae is lifted.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #11

That’s the kicker. And I agree. Most of us have made enough noise (warranted grumbling I think I could call it) about people who elevate their own un-trained intuitions above the advice of schooled and trained professionals in the pertinent field. I don’t want to be that person who has an arrogantly high self-appraisal about my ability to know better than the experts; but this topic reminds me that I do sometimes cavort on that side of the fence too.

(Phil) #12

Those are some great insights but we seem to have more questions than answers.
Underlying the discussion seems to be the idea that we should not change the status quo. Despite the fact that species come and go, we worry about whether an isolated species of blind cave salamander bites the dust. Sea levels go up and done through history, yet going up a couple of centimeters makes for national news. Not to belittle those concerns, for sometimes these things have real impact, but it is sort of cute how we think the universe revolves around us and our beach condo.
I suspect that, if mosquitoes disappeared forever, which they probably would not, other insects would quickly fill their ecological niche. Hopefully, insects that don’t bite. So if I were supreme commander, I would probably go for it. Of course, I am for GMO food also. Hopefully, somebody is working on putting a little lime gene into avocados to keep the guac from turning brown.

(Steve Schaffner) #13

This point, when weighed along with the cost of malaria, is the decisive one for me. My concern would be that the proposed intervention would have too little effect, not too much – the A. gambiae will quickly evolve to evade the drive mechanism, or that something else will quickly slide into its place. In the meantime, there will be other malaria vectors still active in the same places. Still, if it could provide some short to medium term aid to elimination efforts, great.

I get the concerns about scientific colonialism, but I think that’s a perfectly addressable issue here. Unless someone is proposing introducing the mosquitoes without broad buy-in from national malaria control programs in the region (which I think is simply not a realistic possibility today), I don’t see why this has to carry the taint of colonialism with it. The African health officials and malaria researchers I’m familiar with want all the tools they can get their hands on, wherever they come from. Realistically, a lot of those tools are going to come from abroad for the foreseeable future, and it would be obviously unethical to withhold them because they come from former colonial powers. If NMCPs chose not to introduce engineered mosquitoes – well, they’re the ones with the responsibility to choose, not us.

Anyhow, echoing the late Allan Magill . . .
Malaria delenda est

(Christy Hemphill) #14

In the article, the only Africans they quoted were against the idea. That may just be slanted reporting. But it does underscore the idea that coming up with the technology is only half the solution. You also have to work hard at local buy-in and ownership of the solution. And not just at the level of the decision makers. They have to be actively recruiting the support of the average people who can often be manipulated into blaming the scientists and development workers for causing totally unrelated problems if there is not a coordinated effort to promote education and combat misinformation.