Let’s begin with a thought experiment. It’s 20 years in the future and there is only one breeding pair of pandas left in the wild and, as is their nature, they’re more concerned with lolling around eating bamboo than ensuring the survival of the species. Would you step in and “lend a hand”, so to speak? Of course you would. But what happens after they’re still unresponsive to your coercion? Would you clone a panda to preserve them for future generations?
Okay, how about this next one. If you’re going to the trouble of cloning it, why not improve it’s sex drive a little? You’re just offsetting the deficient genetic toolkit nature has given it, right? Maybe that’s a little far, after all who are we to judge pandas for being so prudish? What about in another example? This time our pandas are positively raring to go, they can barely keep their paws off each other, but global warming wiped out all the bamboo. Are you going to let baby panda grow up in a world without sustenance? Couldn’t you just engineer him to be able to eat, oh lets say, potatoes or rice or filet mignon and survive? If it’s just an aversion to performing a dirty sounding procedure like genetic engineering on a fluffy panda cub that’s stopping you, why not take the easier option of making a heat and drought resistant bamboo strain? Or we could just leave the pandas to die?
It’s rather a silly example, but interesting to see at which point people jump on the GM bandwagon. Do you think even recreating nature using genetic technology is wrong? Do you draw the line at tweaking with mother nature’s work? Or do you only accept the necessity when trying to right one of our own wrongs? Personally, and having studied biochemistry I’ll admit I’m rather biased (although some might just call it well informed), I’m all for GM technology. Allow me to try and convince you.
Let’s be clear from the beginning, DNA is DNA no matter where it has come from. All a gene does is tell your body how to make a protein for a particular task, whether its coding for a tool to break down sugar or a tool we call spider silk doesn’t matter a damn to your cells. There’s nothing inherently strange about having a gene from another organism inside you. Or at least not as strange than sharing your body with maybe 400 trillion mitochondria, symbiotic lifeforms that live inside your cells, each with their own entire genome. It rather puts the idea of gene swapping in context.
So it may be perfectly natural for your cells to accept having new bits of DNA, but surely the unnatural bit is having genes jumping around and transferring between species? Well, no not really. Your genome is full of what we call transposons, bits of DNA that just don’t stay still. By historical accident these sequences of DNA become able to cut themselves out of the genome, float around a bit and then randomly re-insert themselves somewhere else. Some, like the so-called Alu sequence can even copy and paste, rather than cut and paste, there are around a million of these 300 letter sequences hopping around in each of your cells right this second.
Transposons are mostly genetic relics, but your body also actively genetically engineers itself. If you want a working immune system, you need to be able recognise every possible chemical, foreign body or defective cell. That means you’ll need a different antibody protein, and a different gene encoding it for each and every one. To save time, and genomic space, your body just splices different variations of a few genes together to generate billions of different types of antibody. Or have you ever thought about what happens in your egg and sperm cells to shuffle up your maternal and paternal genes? That’s genetic modification too. The number of different ways you’ve sliced up just your own DNA is probably comparable to the number of GMOs that scientists have created during the last 50 years of biochemical research.
It’s even natural to transfer genes between species, a bacteria called Agrobacterium tumorfasciens relies on this trick for its survival. It likes to inject some of its own DNA inside plant cells which then integrates into the host genome. Once there the agrobacterium genes cause the plant to express proteins to convert all the food it makes into agrobacterium food. Viruses too, and in particular retroviruses like HIV, are also adept at genetic engineering. Both these types of organism are so good at what they do that we use them as a tools for genetic engineering ourselves. In fact, nearly all the tools we use for genetic manipulation are ultimately taken from other organisms.
So in reality, there’s plenty of genetic engineering going on in nature, the fact that we’re now able to control it doesn’t make the process any more alien. Besides, if you’re constructing your argument around only allowing what is natural you can wave goodbye to your house, your clothes and cooked food and revel in other more “natural” pleasures like snake venom or hurricanes or cholera. We feel perfectly justified in defending ourselves against other aspects of nature, so why not against the dangers posed to us by faulty genetic circuitry? “Nature” doesn’t have a plan, it’s not obligated to defend a poorly adapted species. Gaia doesn’t give a toss (try asking the dinosaurs), but maybe we should? Especially when many species are unable to evolve fast enough to cope with the problems that we’ve selfishly created.
The world of genetics is based on random mutation, recombination and selective pressure. Give a system like that enough time and it will produce works of engineering so inspired as to be bordering on artwork, but dig a little deeper and you’ll realise how much faulty or just plain junk genes we’ve accumulated over the course of evolutionary time. Frankly, a system built on chaos can never be better than one built on logic. Our understanding is growing slowly, but we’re homing in on a perfect picture of the inner life of the cell.
Using the tools of genetic manipulation that nature, god or chance, whatever you’d like to call it, has given us we’re able to take ever more control of the environment around us. Not only do I think we should, but I think we must. In the short term because it is seriously cruel to reject genetic technology that can help sick people. In the medium term because true GM super crops (that will put “roundup ready” to shame) will be our best shot at feeding the planet and GM bacteria present the only feasible solution to sucking CO2 out the air, turning burning oil for fuel into a renewable cycle.
But taking a longer view, once we’ve well and truly fucked up this planet and killed off everything else, so long as we have just a single copy of their DNA, we could build it all again, and only then could we ever be described as “playing God”.