by Tom Bulford
Posted 13th March 2017
Venki Ramakrishnan grew up in India and knows all about malnutrition and poor health.
Today as President of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge – commonly known as the Royal Society – he knows better than anyone that genetic techniques may do much to cure these ills.
In a recent talk in Boston he described the many ways in which we are now able to genetically engineer living things, using many of the same examples that I have given in this newsletter.
Although biotechnology is not exclusively about genetics it is in our understanding of DNA that we are making the fastest progress and gaining the greatest insights into the workings of the natural world.
As Ramakrishnan observes, the cost of DNA sequencing has tumbled from around $6,400 per base pair in the 1980s to under $0.1 today.
Not only is it much cheaper to read DNA, but the cost of synthesizing (the natural or artificial creation of) DNA has also been falling; our understanding of the interplay between gene expression and the environment is improving; and the CRISPR/Cas9 technique allows us to accurately alter DNA at specific sites.
A turning point in cancer treatment
With this awesome tool-box we can tinker with cells, learn the role of genes, and find out what happens if we alter them.
Already there have been some spectacular successes. Layla is the little girl treated at Great Ormond Street for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. She was given genetically edited donor T-Cells (a type of immune cell).
These were engineered so that they would seek out and fight leukemia cells while also being invisible to a powerful leukemia drug. Layla survived this deadly disease and cases like hers ‘could mark a turning point in cancer treatment.’
Ramakrishnan describes how insulin is produced through the insertion of the insulin gene into the E.coli bacterium, and how genetically modified tobacco plants act as biological factories to produce vaccines.
He mentions the huge increase in the acreage devoted to GM crops over the last twenty years; the Aquadvantage salmon, the first GM animal approved for human consumption; and he also touches upon synthetic materials such as a bio-acrylic that ‘can be used in the same ways as petro-acrylic but is associated with a 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.’
We can do a lot with the “gene drive”
But with genetic engineering advancing at such a pace it is the future applications that are most exciting. In previous editions I have described the ‘gene drive’, whereby the engineered trait is passed on to all succeeding generations.
The insertion of such a gene drive into mosquitoes could either block the ability of the female mosquito to become infected with the malaria parasite or, by inducing sterility, it could wipe out the mosquito population over time.
To ameliorate climate change trees could be designed to capture and store more carbon, plants could remove pollution from the land or react to explosives to show the location of land mines. We could produce higher yielding crops, crops with added nutrients and crops that are resistant to drought, pests and herbicides.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is backing a project to develop a modified version of matooke, a type of banana that is a staple food across Africa, so that it can withstand the leaf wilt that has been devastating plantations.
Cattle could be grown without horns to reduce the risk of injury. Chickens could be made resistant to flu. Biological batteries using engineered viruses to act as electrodes could radically improve the battery power to weight ratio.
These are all examples of current projects, and few would disagree that they are trying to achieve outcomes that would improve human lives.
But such are the possibilities of genetic engineering that not every outcome may be considered so benign and Ramakrishnan’s talk is part of an increasingly urgent debate about its possible consequences.
He points out that ‘adapting biology for the benefit of humankind is far from new.’ He mentions Luther Burbank ‘the father of modern plant breeding’, whose Burbank potato was celebrated for ending the Irish potato famine.
We have selected chickens to be larger, wild cattle to be smaller, horses to run faster, dogs to be more cuddly and the Brassica oleracea plant to become broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale.
The rules are totally inconsistent
But while the adaptation of biology by the traditional means of selective breeding is considered entirely acceptable the achievement of the same ends through genetic engineering is controversial.
With genetic engineering we can do things that we could never do through breeding, and some of these things seem freakish.
Is it right to produce animal/human chimeras in order to harvest organs for transplant? Is it right to edit germline cells that will be passed down the generations?
In Edinburgh the ‘synthetic yeast 2.0’ project aims to produce the first eukaryote (a cell) with an entirely synthetic genome – a ‘first’ in the creation of artificial forms of life.
This can all seem rather alarming but, Ramakrishnan points out, while we seem happy to accept genetic engineering when it suits us – to save Layla, or to produce insulin – we are critical of other manifestations especially where there may be unforeseen consequences further down the biological chain.
And while genetic engineering is making possible things that would otherwise not be possible are our real concerns with the outcome or with the method?
While the European Union bans GM crops because it does not like the ‘method’ of their production, the USA has embraced them because the ‘outcome’ seems quite satisfactory.
We are, says Ramakrishnan, ‘on the verge of a new age of biology….Advances in genetics challenge public notions of what is natural and unnatural.’
We need to enter this brave new world ‘with our eyes wide open’ and with a clear understanding that we cannot make judgements based solely on either ‘method’ or ‘outcome.’