My nightmares have been haunted, of late, with the technology called CRISPR. I’m going to put its basic premise into far too simple terms and analogies, in the interests of time. CRISPR is gene sequencing technology, allowing scientists to splice differing genes into an organism’s actual genetic structure. The scary thing is that these changes can be passed along to all future generations, using what’s called a “gene drive.”
Yesterday scientist Kevin Esvelt spoke with On Point about gene editing, and was talking about how Lyme disease could potentially be eradicated within 10 years; it’s passed from mice to ticks, so if you remove Lyme disease from mice, you remove it from humans. The scientist discussed how since this would affect the shared environment, whether or not science proceeds is up to all those who would be affected by the shared environment (that means all of us, kids!). He asked if we could be affecting other things in the environment.
What stuck in my mind was him saying he didn’t think we would affect the entire environment.
EVERYTHING we do has consequences. We have brought invasive species into pristine environments. We are heating the oceans enough to eradicate fish and bacteria existing for centuries. We have introduced other species to try and fix our first mistakes, leading to more and more issues and complications in the natural environment.
We have messed with nature, and it shows.
And now we’re discussing changing the actual genes of an entire species. We are playing way outside of our competence, here. Who can know the long-term effects we could have on the environment?
Diseases are horrible, yes. But they exist for a reason. Everything in nature is subject to basic population controls – if a species becomes too populous, nature will introduce a disease, a plague, a predator, and balance will be restored. Whenever we humans have messed with this basic premise, problems have resulted. Look at the proliferation of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes – we thought this was going to be the end of the world as we knew it, because carp and other freshwater fish would no longer have seaweed and silt to hide in; instead, we’re seeing other fish gain prominence and the zebra mussels acting as a food source. Nature is doing its best to fix our screwups, but instead of learning, we continue to mess around.
Humans are subject to the same natural laws as all other organisms. We should not be messing around with species’ genetics in order to make our lives easier.
At least this particular scientist is bothering to ask if we should do something, rather than simply if we could.