Image: T. Cowart/Flickr
The world's top geneticists decided to spend the vast majority of last week discussing how to keep new genetic editing tools from ultimately destroying the human race. A noble goal, sure. But considerably less time has been spent discussing how genetically editing other species might change the idea of "nature" as we know it.
A future where the gene editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 is used by DIY biologists, genetic engineering startups, and even artists create fanciful organisms straight out of sci-fi is not just possible—it's likely, argue two of the country's top bioethicists.
"Why should we not expect dwarf elephants, giant guinea pigs, or genetically tamed tigers?" Hank Greely of Stanford School of Medicine and Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine write in the essay “CRISPR Critters and CRISPR Cracks.” "Or—dare we wonder—the billionaire who decides to give his 12-year-old daughter a real unicorn for her birthday?"
Greely and Charo argue that such overlooked or even "frivolous" uses of the gene editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 could fall through regulatory cracks and may ultimately have a greater impact on our environment than human editing ever would.
"A very large reptile that looks at least somewhat like the European or Asian dragon (perhaps even with flappable if not flyable wings) could be someone's target of opportunity"
"Humans are terrible laboratory animals. We don't follow instructions, we have long generation times, and we can hire lawyers. [Human genome editing] has a gauntlet of satiates, regulations, bureaucracies, and (potentially) courts that it must run," they wrote in the essay, published in The American Journal of Bioethics. "Nontraditional gene-editing applications such as bringing back the mammoth or growing a psychedelic garden might face only limited scrutiny if they fall into the cracks. This essay is, in in essence, a plea—let's not ignore the nonhuman part of the biosphere."
Greely and Charo note that gene editing has already been used by artist Eduardo Kac to create a green rabbit; that genetically modified "GloFish" can be purchased in most places in the United States; and that startups are already advertising color-changing flowers on Kickstarter. Can a real-life "dragon" or other organisms created as "spectacles" be far behind?
"Basic physics will almost certainly combine with biological constraints to prevent the creation of flying dragons or fire-breathing dragons—but a very large reptile that looks at least somewhat like the European or Asian dragon (perhaps even with flappable if not flyable wings) could be someone's target of opportunity," they write.
Greely and Charo aren't opposed to the gene editing technique—they just suggest that there's not even a modicum of regulatory clarity when it comes to what government agencies should be responsible for deciding when it's OK to use CRISPR/Cas9.
A Florida-based company called Oxitec is highly interested in using CRISPR/Cas9 to genetically modify mosquitoes in order to sterilize the mosquitoes that carry dengue fever.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration is deciding whether or not the company should be allowed to follow through with a planned test using "animal drug" regulations that take into account whether or not the gene editing is safe for the health of the mosquito.
Meanwhile, it could be argued that both the US Department of Agriculture's animal and plant health regulations or the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide regulations should apply to the trial. CRISPR, of course, is neither a "drug" nor strictly a "pesticide." Things get complicated.
"Overall, we have three agencies and multiple statutes coming into play to consider the downstream effects on the environment of engineering an entire population of mosquitoes," Greely and Charo write. "This might be reassuring, but it also may mean there will be a morass each time a critter seems to fall through the cracks."
Neither Greely nor Charo profess to have any answers here: "We do agree that these possibilities should spark not only the imagination, but also critical policy and ethical analysis—to say nothing of ideas for some truly excellent science fiction."
So, something to think about, I suppose.