Theory & ethics behind gene-tampering


                MannGram: Theory and Ethics behind gene-tampering
               
                                L R B  Mann
                                       Dec 2003   rev. Jan 2007
 
        Not only practising gene-manipulators but also a much wider range of scientists should speak out for much stricter control of gene-tampering because it is based on dud science.  And even those unconcerned with science as such should be concerned at the ethics of the gene-tampering trade.
        Prof Richard Strohman has pointed out, in a sporadic small series of articles in Nature Biotechnology, many defects in the Lego model of biology which 'informs' the gene-tampering trade.  Dogma long refuted is crucial among the axioms of the gene-jiggerers, e.g
*  "one gene one protein",
*  "only 4 letters in the DNA code",
*  "insertion of genes from another kingdom by illegitimate recombination is equivalent to breeding",
*  "randomness becomes utmost precision as we slam in synthetic nucleic acids by weapons-grade biolistics",
*  "seen one redwood y' seen 'em all - especially once we've patented & cloned lo-lignin sequoia";
*  etc etc. 
        The main characteristic of this set of slogans is that they are scientific drivel.  The Schubert Letter (Nat  Biotech  Oct 2002 p. 969 - attached) would alone serve to refute them.
        The main general scientific answer is that nature is far from random.  The idea that slapping in  -  randomly -  a few genes by radically unnatural processes will have more predictable effects than offering a whole genome of 10^4 - 10^5 genes in cross-pollination is wrong for the main reason that it assumes natural crosses to be random or nearly so.  A top-level affirmation of this assumption was stated by main Monsanto-connected gene-jockeys Roger Beachy et bulk in their 'enraged' response (Nat  Biotech  Nov 2002) to the Schubert Letter:-
               
        ' The reality is that "unintentional consequences" are much more likely to occur in nature than in biotechnology because nature relies on the unintentional consequences of blind random genetic mutation and rearrangement to produce adaptive phenotypic results, whereas GM technology employs precise, specific, and rationally designed genetic modification toward a specific engineering goal. '

         The immediate response to this furphy is that there's almost nothing random in nature.  We know, admittedly, v little about the natural barriers to error in traditional breeding; that does not prove they're unreal or random.  A gene-jockey of plants, Prof Patrick Brown, has made this & related points at www.psrast.org.
        What is so precise, specific, or rational about GM as done so far?  The answer is, very little indeed.  Its outcomes are inherently unpredictable.  The tiny minority of target cells that both survive and have incorporated somewhere in the genome the desired gene cassette will, in general, also develop other unforeseeable properties, e.g deviant metabolism generating toxins or allergens.
        Indeed, the assertion of Beachy et al. is refuted by the known figures on frequency of unexpected mutations in GM-bastards compared with mutation rates from breeding.

        The more fundamental general answer is that nature is extremely orderly.  It is complex, but not like a bowl of alphabet soup; nature   -  especially life  -  is systematic.  This should be agreed by all scientists, even atheists; of course, us theists ascribe the systematic order to design, but those who resist belief in design will, I hope, agree nature to be systematically orderly.  If you think, like Dawkins & Peter Atkins, that nature is just the result of the outworkings of physics & chemistry, then you could fairly easily assume that even random insertion of 'cassettes' would be no more likely than traditional breeding to cause harm.  If on the other hand you believe (to take a specific case) that an apple is not just a random collection of biochemicals but a creation of a benign Creator, and that Grandmother Smith in a Seedknee suburb was a humble agent of that Creator (selecting a new mutant that had arrived according to His rules), then you will contrast such natural processes with the overwhelming of natural barriers to slam in viral promoters joined onto synthetic approximate copies of bacterial genes by biolistics or by modified T-plasmids - violent processes expected to disrupt the target genome.  Breeding entails natural protections from error which are overwhelmed by gene-tampering.
        I tend to think it is on this level that the issue really turns.  For those who think so, re-reading of Genesis 3  may be salutory.    

        In a culture that has largely turned away from the religion that gave rise to its legal principles, the ethics of gene-tampering is in drastic need of fundamental review.  Gene-jiggering has already sucked in $10^11, and still only a few corporations have produced anything saleable (except those selling the enzyme kits etc for the gene-tampering expts).  The science behind this commercial frenzy is junk; the Lego model of biology never looked promising and is now known to be wrong.  Proper biology points to the Schubert Letter, and in response a gaggle of Monsanto stooges intones 'enragedly' the moronic atheistic rubbish quoted above.
        Never in the history of science has a family of "technologies" been developed, and deployed in many organisms, based on such junk science as stated by Beachy et al

   But the ethical appraisal of GM is even more backward.  The most dangerous technology of all history blunders on, little understood by venture-drongos and by ethicists.  The good scientists like Pat Brown and David Schubert are crucially valuable.  The Union of Concerned Scientists should emulate its anti-nuclear activism of the golden Kendall era.  Go to it, Yanks!
        Much more importantly, If the human has no duties to a higher power, how can selfishness & greed be curbed?  The religion that gave rise to the code of ethics claimed to be implemented, if imperfectly, in British & USA legal systems had better get involved in renewal of ethics.  It is an embarrassment to Christians that a bishop (of my denomination) contributed scarcely at all to the Royal Commission on GM, flagging away opportunities to discuss ethics in public hearings.  A minor powerHarpie has set up tiny sandpits with pompous titles 'Interchurch Commission' etc but has produced nothing significant.  As an Anglican I have said for years that the churches are the sleepers in the movement for control of GM.  I hope & pray they will take GM much more seriously.

R