Tag: Genetic engineering

KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

I see human genetic manipulations as inevitable. Someone will go there, and others will need to follow to keep up. Of course, while I can see the author’s point that the Chinese will go there first, I think they might not actually be the ones to commit the worst offenses. After all, the Chinese are still a post-communist dictatorship, and those leaders are definitely not going to risk their hold on power from a gang of enhanced super-humans. Hence the introduction of a flaw to control them bye, and the proceeding unraveling of the whole thing.

The inevitable reality is that as technology and knowledge advances, it will present us with opportunities that can, and will, lead to bad things. I remember reading a book a while back that basically made the case that the reason humanity was not finding other intelligence out there was not merely because we were looking/listening for the wrong things as some that point out our technology doesn’t lend itself to the overcoming the difficulties of the vastness of space, but that they simply didn’t exist. Civilizations reached a point where their technological advances caused them to tamper with themselves or build bigger and better engines of destruction, with the inevitable consequence that they would wipe life out.

But who knows? Maybe Ideocracy had it right, an the greatest scientific minds will all gravitate to improving erections and solving hair loss, and we will be spared extinction as the stupid people out-breed the others.

The future looks bright!

Science Sunday: The Anti-GMO Crackpots

This week’s science blog is an excuse to point you at Will Saletan’s thorough article exposing the deceptions used by the forces opposed to genetically modified foods. After a year of reporting, he has unveiled a long post thick with links to studies by scientists and claims by anti-GMO activists. It is very very damning. The anti-GMO crowd make the Intelligent Designers look like Marie Curie:

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

Saletan focuses on three examples of anti-GMO nutbaggery. The first the is the ringspot virus-resistant papaya, engineered to save the papaya industry in Hawaii. Environmentalist groups unleashed every trick in the book: claiming it was unsafe to consume a viral protein that people were consuming anyway; claiming it was bankrupting farmers (because of their opposition); claiming it had not been proven safe. All of these were lies and distortions, pushed by people with an agenda.

Next is crops containing Bt — a protein that kills predatory insects. Anti-GMO activists insist that plants contain Bt are poison … when they aren’t claiming they are ineffective. They do this while pushing Bt-containing sprays as safe and sustainable and attributing harms from Bt sprays to Bt-engineered crops.

Finally, he gets to the golden rice, which we’ve mentioned before. The golden rice could save the eyesight of hundreds of thousands of children. Anti-GMO activists opposed it because it didn’t have enough vitamin A. Then opposed because it had too much.

That summary doesn’t do justice to what’s going on. All along the way, the anti-GMO forces have been … well, lying. They distort studies, they misquote studies, they ignore studies that contradict their opinion. They denounce things as dangerous when they come from genetic engineering but proclaim them safe when they come from other means.

Now you might say, “Hey, what’s the harm in labeling GMO foods?” Here’s the harm:

GMO labels don’t clarify what’s in your food. They don’t address the underlying ingredients—pesticides, toxins, proteins—that supposedly make GMOs harmful. They stigmatize food that’s perfectly safe, and they deflect scrutiny from non-GMO products that have the same disparaged ingredients.

In other words, that safe organic banana might actually have more pesticide, more bacteria and more “toxins” than the supposedly dangerous GMO product. Putting a scarlet letter on GMO products isn’t “informing the public”. It’s trying to scare them into supporting an agenda.

This isn’t a trivial matter. Right now, we are seeing the spread of the UG-99 wheat rust. This rust has the potential to wreck the world’s wheat production, causing mass starvation and economic chaos. We desperately need to engineer strains of wheat that can resist the rust. But if the anti-GMO forces get their way, we’ll only be able to use the slow and less certain process of traditional breeding. Millions could die as a result.

(Saletan, like everyone who defends GMO’s, is being accused of being paid off by Monsanto. Monsanto had a clever reply to this.)

Saletan doesn’t ignore legitimate issues with GMO crops, such as the arms race they are creating in weed control. But those are solvable problems. Solvable problems that are not getting enough attention because the green luddites have us focused on the wrong things.

GMO crops are safe. This is the conclusion of every scientific study that has been done. There are issues around GMO’s that need some work. Let’s concentrate on that.

Science Sunday: Gene Editing

Genetic engineering has been with us for about forty years. During that time, it has helped us develop more effective drugs, drought- and disease-resistant crops, and a barrage of genetic tests that can measure your risk for such things as breast cancer. It has also sparked a lot of opposition from those who fear its power as well as luddite hatred from anti-GMO types who have successfully slowed the implementation of such as things as “the golden rice” and therefore condemned thousands of children to unnecessary blindness.

Things took another step a couple of weeks ago, however, when researchers in China used the new CRISPR technology to modify the genes of non-viable human embryos. Does this mean we are on the verge of a real-life Gattaca? Should we be worried about this?

Francis Collins, the NIH Director, makes the case against allowing this kind of research:

It’s also very hard to identify the need for this kind of embryo manipulation for human purposes. If you’re talking about genetic disease, we have pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which gives couples at risk for genetic disease a chance to avoid that risk without any manipulation of the germline.

Last, there are deep concerns of a philosophical sort, about what it means for human beings to intentionally manipulate their own genomes. If applied broadly and widely, does that result in us being changed into something other than homo sapiens? I don’t think we even have to go to that one to say this is something we shouldn’t do. The safety arguments and lack of medical need trump [these concerns].

Collins gets one thing very wrong in that paragraph: his claim that pre-implantation diagnosis is enough for couples screening for genetic disease. We looked into this when we were doing fertility treatments (Hal 11000 Beta came about the old-fashioned way after fertility failed). Our doctor told us that the diagnosis tech is shaky at best. And with some disorders — such as Down’s — the errors can occur in some cells but not others. So the idea that there is no “need” for this — even assuming we have to show a need to the likes of Collins — is a bit of a reach.1

But Collins hits most of the points probably going through your head: that this kind of research would be unethical, that messing with the human genome is a dangerous road, etc.

The counterpoint is given by Ramez Naan at Marginal Revolution in two posts (here and here).

[Banning this research] is a mistake, for several reasons.

1. The technology isn’t as mature as reported. Most responses to it are over-reactions.

2. Parents are likely to use genetic technologies in the best interests of their children.

3. Using gene editing to create ‘superhumans’ will be tremendously harder, riskier, and less likely to be embraced by parents than using it to prevent disease.

4. A ban on research funding or clinical application will only worsen safety, inequality, and other concerns expressed about the research.

Part 1 I didn’t find terribly interesting. He’s right that CRISPR can’t create viable genetically modified embryos. But the ethical issues remain. Someday, we probably will have that power.

His other points are much more germane. He points out the human genome, like almost everything in the human body, has many moving parts. There is no single gene for high intelligence or good looks. You would have to make massive changes to many parts of someone’s DNA to, say, make them taller. This is why short parents can have tall kids and vice versa — the genetics are far more complex than, say, hair color.

Manipulating IQ, height, or personality is thus likely to involve making a very large number of genetic changes. Even then, genetic changes are likely to produce a moderate rather than overwhelming impact.

Conversely, for those unlucky enough to be conceived with the wrong genes, a single genetic change could prevent Cystic Fibrosis, or dramatically reduce the odds of Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or cut the risk of heart disease by 30-40%.

Reducing disease is orders of magnitude easier and safer than augmenting abilities.

That addressed Collins’ major point. There is a medical need for this sort of technology; a big one. One that could be filled very easily and at low risk.

Now, it’s possible we could one day have the technology to modify more complex things like height or intelligence. But that technology is decades away at this point, even assuming it is possible at all. It would require an understanding of genetics, and possibly even more importantly, epigenetics, that is a quantum leap beyond where we are now. It’s something to worry about, but not if its means blocking technology that could cure Cystic Fibrosis.

Naam’s third point is that parents are risk-averse. This plays on the first point. Parents might, in theory, want to give their child a genetic leg up. But the best they might face is a possibility of increasing their child’s IQ by ten points at the potential risk of unknown disorders or complications. While I agree with him, it’s certain that some parents will embrace these risks, especially as the technology matures.

Naam’s final point is basically that this is going to happen. And once it does, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. If we ban it here, it will pop up in China. If we get China to ban it, it will pop up in India. If we get India to ban it, it will pop up in South Africa.

This is not something we can unlearn. It’s something we have to deal with. At this stage, given the crudeness of the technology, I am more than happy for the NIH to ban research into genetically engineering humans. But that’s kicking the can down the road. At some point, we will have to decide what we will and will not allow and who gets to decide what risks are and are not worth it.

We have, however, been here before. In the 1970’s, there were efforts to ban the very genetic engineering that has been so beneficial to us and brought us to this point. Supporters of the ban included James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s structure, and Al Gore, supposed science luminary (Watson later admitted he was wrong). They failed, barely. And as it turned out, it was for the best. As P.J. O’Rourke noted twenty years ago in All the Trouble in the World:

Biotechnologists could still come up with something awful by accident, not to mention on purpose. Nature does it all the time. Nature is forever inventing things like the bubonic plague, although whether intentionally or not is a question too deep for this state college graduate. But, in the meantime, we’ve got a four-billion-dollar biotech industry that produces cheap insulin, accurate tests for everything from pregnancy to colon cancer, new vaccines, the diagnostic process that keeps the nation’s blood supply freed of AIDS and hepatitis, and hundreds of other products, with thousands more on the horizon — a small price to pay for an occasional giant sheep.

Nature is forever editing the human genome. The possibility of humans tampering with their own genetics is frightening and I think we should take the potential risks seriously. But, given history, it is much more likely to result in the ability to cut the risk of cancer than to produce a race of Uma Thurman clones.

Genetic engineering did play one role in Hal’s birth. Thanks to a new genetic screening technique, we were able to test Hal at ten weeks for potential trisomies with 99% accuracy.</sup

Matt Fracking Damon and the Anti-Science Left

And to think, all the Hollywood celebs joke that the facts have a liberal bias:

Matt Damon and John Krasinski ran into a big problem while making their film “Promised Land”; how they solved it tells us a lot about Hollywood.

Some time ago, the two actors decided to make a movie about fracking — a method of getting once-inaccessible oil and gas out of the ground that has become the bête noire of many environmentalists.

The two wrote a screenplay they said was about “American identity . . . and what defines us as a country.”

It was the usual Hollywood script. We all know the . . . drill: Damon’s character works for an “evil” oil company. He comes to small-town America and sells locals a dangerous bill of goods.

So far, so good. Damon was building a movie around environmentalist concerns about fracking. But then reality intervened:

But while “Promised Land” was in production, the story of Dimock [Pennsylvania] collapsed. The state investigated and its scientists found nothing wrong. So the 11 families insisted EPA scientists investigate. They did — and much to the dismay of the environmental movement found the water was not contaminated.

There was Wolf Eagle Environmental Engineers in Texas, a group that produced a frightening video of a flaming house water pipe and claimed a gas company had polluted the water. But a judge just found that the tape was an outright fraud — Wolf Eagle connected the house gas pipe to a hose and lit the water.

Other “pollution” cases collapsed in Wyoming and Colorado. Even Josh Fox, who with his Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland” first raised concerns about flammable water, has had to admit he withheld evidence that fracking was not responsible.

These frauds and misrepresentations created huge problems for the Damon/Krasinski script about “what defines us as a country.”

Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve been jerked around quite a bit by these bozos. I’m willing to listen to concerns about fracking. We should pay attention to concerns about new technology, especially one as dramatic as fracking. It’s the basic precautionary principle.

But many of these concerns have turned out to be overblown or outright fraudulent. And the people who should be maddest about this are the environmentalists. It’s their movement, their concerns, their compassion which is being hijacked by anti-corporate hucksters. Now if a legitimate concern were found with fracking, no one would listen because they’ve been lied to so many times.

Well, I’m sure they’ll find someone else to demonize. Maybe GM crops?

I used to think that nothing rivaled the misinformation spewed by climate change skeptics and spinmeisters.

Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they’ve been and who has helped them pull it off.

I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.

In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.

The latest and greatest is a claim that GM crops cause tumors in rats. Turns out this research was so bogus it got instantly torn apart on the science blogs. Read the details at the link. Read also that Grist, Mother Jones and other liberal publications — who are constantly excoriating global warming skeptics — continue to praise the researchers and their bogus anti-GMO science.

The vast middle of the country is pro-science. I see it every time we do public outreach — the genuine fascination, enthusiasm and wonder in each of the thousand eyes that looks through a telescope on a dark night or peers at one of Hubble’s new images. America loves science and technology. Even the evil fracking is greeted with amazement by many people.

But the hard fringes of either side of our political spectrum do not love science. Fundamentalists of any stripe hate science because science produce results that are inconvenient to their ideology. The Hard Left, which is just as fundamentalist as the hard Right, will accept scientific results — like global warming — if it can be used to support an agenda. But that support will vanish once science comes up with things they don’t like, such as fracking and genetically-modified crops.

And like it or not, these luddite attitudes influence the Democratic Party. You can read Ronald Bailey’s analysis of the 2012 DNC platform and how they have delivered on their 2008 promises. Some is good — oil production is booming, for example. But they’ve been dragging their heels on other issues. And, for all their bluster, federal R&D has fallen 8% under Obama. And if sequestration happens, the eagle will be coming for another chunk of our liver come January despite our never having been bulked up by the stimulus.

That’s the pro-science party?

As for Matt Damon, they are apparently rewriting their movie so that the fraudulent anti-fracking activists are moles for the industry. Okay. Good luck with that. I suspect this will simply be another “issue” movie that — like every issue movie for the last decade — no one watches.