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Genetically Modifying an Entire Ecosystem 52

New submitter structural_biologist writes: Genes normally have a 50-50 chance of being passed from parent to offspring, but scientists may have figured out a way to create genes that show up in offspring with a much higher frequency. "One type of gene drive influences inheritance by copying itself onto chromosomes that previously lacked it. When an organism inherits such a gene drive from only one parent, it makes a cut in the chromosome from the other parent, forcing the cell to copy the inheritance-biasing gene drive—and any adjacent genes—when it repairs the damage." When introduced into the wild, organisms containing gene drives would breed with the population, quickly spreading the modified genes throughout the ecosystem. While the technology could help prevent the spread of malaria and manage invasive species, many scientists worry about the wide-ranging effects of such a technology and are calling for its regulation.
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Genetically Modifying an Entire Ecosystem

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Do not open it.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      We just wanted to make raptors safer to be in a zoo

    • Re:Pandora's box (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Todd Palin ( 1402501 ) on Saturday July 19, 2014 @05:42PM (#47490647)

      What could possibly go wrong?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        How long do you resist short-term profits for long-term risk?

      • by geekoid ( 135745 )

        Since it released hope, please, please open the box*.

        *technically it was a jar, mythological speaking.

        • If memory serves, Pandora's box was pretty similar to most software development: Release #1 unleashed hitherto unknown evils upon the world. Release #2 implemented hope. No additional releases have been forthcoming. We would not have needed release #2 had it not been opened the first time.
        • Since it released hope, please, please open the box*.

          "Hope and Change" was released 6 years ago, and pretty much all we've seen since have been the evils.

    • One Man's Pandora's Box is one Monsanto's Profit Bin.
      Calling for regulation is like calling for socialism.
      Didn't we live in a laissez-faire world?

      • I agree. Genetically modifying the entire ecosystem starts with lawn mowing, and killing all native vegetation and biodiversity previously present in it. Then into this mowed and weed killed and pesticide and insecticide filled "green desert" you call a "pretty lawn" with your fucking corporate brainwashed distorted sense of beauty, we can realease all purely genetically modified, and 0wned by Da Man himself organisms, as a new fashion, new vogue, in a bandwagon that everyone jumps onto like they jump unto
        • They should ban and make illegal any biotech seed that's not fertile the next year. If Monsanto ever goes out of business after they converted the whole world to become dependent on their roundup ready but nonfertile, sterile seeds, there'd be a major collapse in the biosphere, a major extinction event, dependent on a corporation going out of business. That is insane. It's like Microsoft requiring all operating systems to be activated after install to function starting with XP, disregarding the scenario of
  • by Jim Sadler ( 3430529 ) on Saturday July 19, 2014 @05:39PM (#47490641)
    Without considering the potential need for regulation the first question is whether any effective regulations can be put in place. Getting all nations and perhaps all individuals to follow a rule or law is next to impossible. Can an individual make such a genetic alteration? How could we prevent that? Could it be weaponized by a lunatic government such as N. Korea?
    • Recent (within several years) accidental releases from "secure" biological containment facilities, specifically involving [what many scientists say was extremely dangerous and unethical] experimentation on increasing the virulence of H5N1 flu virus, illustrates the inadequacy of genetic containment. They can't even keep the most "secure" labs secure, and we have learned that they do shit there they should never be allowed to attempt.

      We already have not just proof but ubiquitous reports of GMO crops escap
  • by Anonymous Coward

    To me that implied all species. Obviously that isn't the case.

    • To me that implied all species. Obviously that isn't the case.

      That's likely true and the journalists are being sloppy. At least the authors of TFA plan to use this to target a particular type of critter (eg an invasive species, a pathogen). The modified organisms could spread throughout an ecosystem, but not infect everything in sight.

      • Gene flow can, and does, occur between species. Most common in bacteria, which appear bent on making up for not having developed sex through sheer promiscuity; but it has been known to happen even in much larger eukaryotic organisms(and viruses, of course, more or less are nothing but horizontal gene transfer wrapped in an elegant delivery system). When dealing with a hypothetical gene engineered to be extraordinarily heritable the odds probably don't improve of not spilling it somewhere unhelpful.
        • True, but again, it's highly regulated and there are defense mechanisms - all of which are incompletely understood. And I'm not so sure that this is a good idea as the mechanisms used to disseminate the genes to the target organisms are going to have to look rather virus like as it's unlikely you're going to try to catch every Cane Toad in the swamp to give them a shot.

          And viruses have lots of ways of getting around defense mechanisms.


          • the mechanisms used to disseminate the genes to the target organisms are going to have to look rather virus like as it's unlikely you're going to try to catch every Cane Toad in the swamp to give them a shot.

            The entire point behind the method is to not have to do this. You make one genetically engineered organism that then breeds passing on the desired trait, only in such a way that inheritance is biased toward the desired trait so that it isn't lost by "dilution" into the gene pool.

        • Yes, but the elegance (and limitation) of this system is that it requires sexual reproduction to work. So if the two organisms don't inter-breed, the traits cannot be passed.

          • The high-heritability hack only works on sexual reproduction; but horizontal gene transfer mechanisms do not.

            The heritability hack wouldn't directly cause more horizontal transfers than usual; but it would ensure that the introduced gene spreads quickly through the target population(increasing the odds that a gene transfer event from that population will include the gene in question) and if it is successfully transferred, it will be more likely than usual (if the transfer target reproduces sexually) to s
            • Yes, but the CRISPR system can be designed to work precisely with a single species, because the targeting sequence can use non-homologous regions of genes that are similar between species. So in your horizontal gene transfer case it would die out after the transfer event into a new species. Another potential safeguard is to put the CRISPR system in a different locus from the mutation, so that horizontal gene transfer events would be very unlikely to transfer both functions into another species.

    • Except they didn't say "entire ecosystem". They said "throughout the ecosystem," meaning engineered organism deliberately and purposefully breed with non-modified organisms thus creating a large-scale change in the ecosystem.

  • Because CRISPR itself is so precise, we can envision a number of safeguards. Alterations can be reversed by releasing a new drive with an updated version of the change.

    ...and when wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.

  • This is the stuff of horror stories. Humans are not intelligent or smart enough to know how to do this. The consequences are immense and terrible.

    Read No Blade of Grass / The Death of Grass for a not so fun treaties on this topic. [] []

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      Shut up. I'm sick and tired of you Luddite's plaguing this web site, the internet and politics.

      How about we use science and not port-apocalyptic fiction m'kay?

      Now go back the the kiddie table while the adults talk. When you have something constructive and intellegent to say, feel free an come back.

    • Is it? Maybe the precursor to Janus (Utopia TV series) or Inferno (Dan Brown)...

      Utopia []

    • So what type of mathematical/scientific proof theorem covers "proof by fictional story"?

      Science Fiction

      Fiction: invention or fabrication as opposed to fact.

  • about 50-50 chance. that's kind of key.

  • Summary is terrible (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rutulian ( 171771 ) on Saturday July 19, 2014 @07:34PM (#47491223)

    Summary is an excerpt of an article highlighting some potential use of technology developed by George Church's lab at Harvard (and others). It is actually some pretty incredible stuff. Church's first published the adaption of the CRISPR system to gene editing in eukaryotes a few years ago. Basically, it works like this. CRISPR is a bacterial defense system where an enzyme (endonuclease) is directed to cut a specific DNA sequence by it's directly adjacent targeting sequence. Bacteria use this to protect themselves from viruses. When a virus tries to insert itself into the genome of a bacterium, CRISPR will cleave that sequence (if the bacterium has the appropriate targeting system) and subsequent DNA repair processes will occur that will excise the viral sequence. You can think of it as a pseudo-immunity system for bacteria against viruses. Like other DNA sequences, CRISPR sequences can be transferred between bacteria in a population allowing for broad-ranging resistance to viral infection to occur within a bacterial community.

    The innovation by Church's group is to put the CRISPR system in eukaryotes. Introducing modified genes by homologous recombination has been around for a long time, but the problem with most eukaryotes is they have multiple copies of each chromosome. So a modification in one copy will get diluted out over several rounds of replication. By including the CRISPR system in the mutation that targets the original gene, a mechanism is supplied to allow a modified gene to quickly spread throughout the population. This makes genetic modification of eukaryotes much more efficient and easier to control.

    Now, while safely applies in a laboratory system, the ecological consequences of using such a system in a natural setting are unclear. This is the purpose of the article: to raise some of the issues and possibilities to begin a discussion about how such a system might be used safely and what sort of regulations may need to be put into place. The article does quite a good job of illustrating some scenarios. Here is what I consider the meat of it, but of course other scenarios exist as well.

    Why and how might we use gene drives to intervene in a particular ecosystem? Our earlier example is perhaps the most compelling: we might use gene drives to control malaria by altering Anopheles mosquitoes that transmit the disease. Anti-malarial medicines and insecticides are losing effectiveness due to evolving resistance, while a vaccine remains out of reach despite intense research and investment. Gene drives, in contrast, might spread genes conferring malaria resistance through the mosquito populations with few if any effects on other species. Alternatively, they might be able to reduce or even eliminate the mosquitoes for long enough to permanently eradicate the malaria parasite. Similar strategies could work for other organisms that spread disease.

    Just want to put that out there so that a somewhat productive conversation can hopefully happen here.

    • This kind of bullshit is why we need to put like a thousand Noah's Ark's into orbit, each with a rain forest zoo, in the form of a rotating steel cylinder space station, made from Moon mined materials. Pronto. So when everything gets fucked up on Earth from this biotech playing in a testtube - it's just an experiment, it's just scientific curiosity, we can contain it, it will never get unleashed from the lab into the Earth's environment - then at least you still have some sane life left on at least one of t
      • Uh, this is not just scientific curiosity. There are some deep practical applications to such technology. Newsflash, malaria is still a big problem in the world and many other efforts to combat it are failing. If we can target the mosquito population I. Ways that don't involve copious amounts of DDT, or inhibit the ability of Mosquitos to act as a vector for the disease, we may make some significant inroads finally.

        While the 12 Monkeys doomsday scenario is popular amongst techies, I don't think we should di

        • I'm not saying we should stop the progress of science, there is of course two sides to every new technology, yin yang, the good side and the bad side - flying, nuclear power, lasers, robots, etc.. I'm saying safety first, cover your bases, and make sure you have a solution, and escape route for if the shit ever hits the fan. That's what vacuum isolated fully self sufficient space stations would be, a safeguard. Don't keep all your eggs in the same basket. Diversify your portfolio. Don't keep all life stuck
    • Actually, the paper [] that this summary is referencing goes the opposite direction and talks about the 1) numerous studies that have already been performed to evaluate safety and 2) outline numerous more that will need to happen.

      Fourth, our current knowledge of the risk management (5,11,36,37,95) and containment (35,38) issues associated with gene drives is largely due to the efforts of researchers focused on mosquito-borne illnesses. Frameworks for evaluating ecological consequences are similarly focused on mosquitoes (39) and the few other organisms for which alternative genetic biocontrol methods have been considered (96). While these examples provide an invaluable starting point for investigations of RNA-guided gene drives targeting other organisms, studies examining the particular drive, population, and associated ecosystem in question will be needed.

      Go ahead and check out the references (and the rest of the paper) if you're genuinely interested in this topic. This is not mad science, nor is it Pandora's Box.

  • Ice-nine, my favorite example of not thinking things all the way through. That and the Army Corp of Engineers constant fucking with the Mississippi River.

  • We're already doing that.

    Relatively little is understood about ecosystems, and what IS comprehended is the extreme complexity of ecosystems and the mystery of the vast unknowns of ecosystems.

    For example; recently a bacteria inside a bacteria that lives inside an insect was discovered to share it's genetic material with the bacteria it resides inside. When something like this is a surprising, new discovery, how can we even begin to claim that we can predict, with any certainty or accuracy, what unusua

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