Emily Anthes has a new book out, Frankenstein’s Cat. It looks quite interesting, but I’ll be honest and admit I doubt I’ll get to it, mostly because I am relatively sanguine about genetic modification. I don’t think it’s a qualitative difference from what’s been going on for 10,000 years. To me all genuine concerns about this area don’t fundamentally have anything to do with the core idea of genetic modification (e.g., rather, it is about control of the means of production, etc.). If you are wondering if you might like the content of Frankenstein’s Cat, I would recommend this 40 minute interview of Anthes on NPR. It strikes me that she’s presenting a rather “balanced” perspective, acknowledging the concerns of some, while attempting to highlight the genuine benefits of genetic modification.
With the election coming up, California Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food, is on my mind. From Ballotpedia:
If Proposition 37 is approved by voters, it will:
* Require labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.
* Prohibit labeling or advertising such food as “natural.”
* Exempt from this requirement foods that are “certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.”
James Wheaton, who filed the ballot language for the initiative, refers to it as “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.”
Michael Eisen has two posts up on this which get the meat of the issue for me. I disagree with Prop 37, though on first blush I think the idea of transparency is radically empowering. Before I get to my reasoning, I want to set aside some ancillary considerations. Some are voting for the measure because they oppose agribusiness in general, or have a particular bone to pick with the way that some firms enforce their intellectual property on seed lines. These are fine critiques, but I’m not going to address them, because I think they’re separate from the science.
This story in The New York Times, Flavor Is Price of Scarlet Hue of Tomatoes, Study Finds, is pretty cool:
Yes, they are often picked green and shipped long distances. Often they are refrigerated, which destroys their flavor and texture. But now researchers have discovered a genetic reason that diminishes a tomato’s flavor even if the fruit is picked ripe and coddled.
The unexpected culprit is a gene mutation that occurred by chance and that was discovered by tomato breeders. It was deliberately bred into almost all tomatoes because it conferred an advantage: It made them a uniform luscious scarlet when ripe.
Now, in a paper published in the journal Science, researchers report that the very gene that was inactivated by that mutation plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato. And these findings provide a road map for plant breeders to make better-tasting, evenly red tomatoes.
Over at Genetic Future Dr. Daniel MacArthur has a measured response to a Nature commentary by David Goldstein, Growth of genome screening needs debate. As Dr. MacArthur notes an excessive portion of Goldstein’s piece is taken up with inferences derived from assuming that the model of rare variants causing most diseases is correct, when that is an issue currently in scientific contention (and this is a debate where Goldstein is a primary player on one side). But the last two paragraphs of the piece is where the real action is, no matter the details of genetic architecture of diseases:
One potential problem with this is that numerous genetic risk factors will have diverse and unexpected effects — sometimes causing disease, sometimes being harmless and sometimes perhaps being associated with behaviours or characteristics that society deems positive. Even for simpler Mendelian diseases, up to 30% of the mutations originally termed pathogenic have turned out to be apparently harmless…Wholesale elimination of variants associated with disease could end up influencing unexpected traits — increasing the vulnerability of populations to infectious diseases, for instance, or depleting people’s creativity.
There are no clear-cut answers to the questions of what should be screened for and to what end, but we must at least begin the debate.
In the 1920s the Soviet Union sponsored a “humanzee” breeding program. From what I recall the ultimate rationale for the funding was that the program might create a race of superior warriors, combing the incredible physical strength on a per pound basis of the chimp, with the greater level of intelligence found in human beings. To our knowledge the experiments were failures, though there have long been rumors of successes in these sorts of programs. I suspect the possibility persists because of the transgressive freak-show aspect.
This was a case where the science of the time was simply not up to the ambitions of the scientists, and this sort of engineering for the good-of-society has been the domain of science fiction. Consider the novel Cyteen. In this future history cloning is normal and acceptable, and the heart of the story involves the attempt to replicate a super-genius. There are broader stellar-political implications, as these sorts of minds are driving engines of innovation, and so strategically valuable. A cruder model of this was also explored in the G. I. Joe universe in the form of the villain Serpentor. He was engineered from the genetic material of ancient conquerors.