GM Mosquitoes: What Could Go Wrong?
December 14, 2016 10:04 PM   Subscribe

Inside the insectary - "These gene drives, they're able to copy themselves. So instead of half of the offspring inheriting the gene drive, almost all of them do. So what happens is that it spreads and it spreads and it spreads. And this is the fantastic thing. Because it allows that gene to be selfish in a population. And in a very short amount of time you can actually transform an entire wild population into a modified population. It's powerful." (previously: 1,2,3)
posted by kliuless (37 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Now that's a big gun.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:41 PM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ecology: A world without mosquitoes
Eradicating any organism would have serious consequences for ecosystems — wouldn't it? Not when it comes to mosquitoes, finds Janet Fang.
We're not talking about a significant reduction mosquitoes, we're talking about the eradication of the very specific mosquitoes that cause disease out of the couple hundred that even bother to bite humans out of the few thousand that together have actually meaningful environmental impacts. Its not like the effect is at all unprecedented, these mosquitoes were already eradicated in the Southern United States and Mediterranean Europe - saving lives by the hundreds of millions - through extensive habitat destruction and the spraying of genuinely awful insecticides. The only population that will be meaningfully reduced aside from these very specific mosquitoes will be dead poor children, who are currently dying by the hundred of millions.

If we can eradicate malaria from the face of the Earth, and it looks like we can, it will join the eradication of Smallpox and the development of dwarf strains of staple crops as the greatest things mankind has ever done. Its certainly worth a little education in genetics.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:59 PM on December 14, 2016 [55 favorites]


The only population that will be meaningfully reduced aside from these very specific mosquitoes will be dead poor children, who are currently dying by the hundred of millions

Yes, regardless of your skepticism of this kind of project -- when you comment on it, please bear in mind that the West has already benefited from eradication. We're not talking about your children; we're talking about children in places like Burkina Faso.

(According to WHO, 8000 children died of malaria in Burkina Faso in 2012, out of a population about the size of the state of New York. Imagine how panicked and desperate parents in New York would be if there was some disease killing 8000 children a year there.)

It's fashionable to make comments on posts like this about how humans are the real plague, and how population reduction is a good thing, but please don't. There are other threads where we can talk about humane, and not horribly racist, ways to reduce population growth--like promoting health care and opportunities for women.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:41 AM on December 15, 2016 [56 favorites]


The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are other, less risky ways to eliminate malaria. From the WHO's PDF on eliminating malaria:
In 1997, the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria brought together prominent scientists and key funding organizations to identify priority research areas for malaria. Over the next decade, increased investment in research yielded the development of highly effective malaria control tools – notably, long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs), rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs), and artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs).
Five countries have already eliminated it. Ten are well on their way to elimination.

While "specifically" targeting a single species of mosquito sounds very practical and temptingly quick, if humans exist as beings capable of scientific research, it's because of evolution. Scientific research has also taught us that evolution can move very quickly. In a single generation (that's just one example). Who's to say that other mosquito species wouldn't be affected? Or – as it's directly targeting mosquito fertility, which evolution kinda sorta likes to favor, how do we know the targeted species won't evolve a way out of it? Thus creating super-species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes?

It's not a good idea to take a risk that could snowball and cause more problems than it solves. Especially when there are already organizations – Médecins sans frontières comes to mind – that we can better support to eliminate malaria.
posted by fraula at 1:43 AM on December 15, 2016


While "specifically" targeting a single species of mosquito sounds very practical and temptingly quick, if humans exist as beings capable of scientific research, it's because of evolution...how do we know the targeted species won't evolve a way out of it? Thus creating super-species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes?

Over the next decade, increased investment in research yielded the development of highly effective malaria control tools – notably, long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs), rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs), and artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs).


I think you need to come up with a better argument when your less risky ways—insecticide and anti-malarial drugs—are things that we know are likely to produced resistant mosquitos and protozoans respectively. There certainly could be unexpected impacts from this new technique, but it's not like the existing techniques have no consequences.
posted by snofoam at 3:05 AM on December 15, 2016 [22 favorites]


temptingly quick

The benefit of acting quickly is literally millions of lives saved. I don't think that "tempting" quite covers the gravity of the choice.

There have been huge strides in recent decades, but we're no where near eliminating malaria. With current control methods, we're still talking about an effort that will take decades, and will only reduce malaria, not eliminate it.

With proper use (which is a challenge in itself), LLINs reduce transmission of malaria, but it's not a guarantee; you can't live your whole life under a net. Improvements in testing and treatment make a real difference, but drug-resistant malaria is a growing concern.

(A colleague of mine has one of those nets; his wife and two children all got malaria this year. There were a few days when he was beside himself because the youngest wasn't responding to treatment well. Luckily, she got better.)

There are also still huge areas that don't have access to regular health care; many don't even have paved roads. Even in the best-case scenario, with political stability (a challenge), lack of corruption (a challenge), and sufficient monetary support (a challenge), and effective education (a challenge), improving health care access is a long and ongoing process.

The choice isn't between eliminating malaria by eliminating mosquitos, and eliminating malaria with "traditional" means. Even in the most optimistic scenario, the choice is eliminating it relatively quickly by eliminating a certain species of mosquito, and significantly reducing it over the course of decades.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:09 AM on December 15, 2016 [27 favorites]


GMOs are not, in and of themselves, inherently evil. We've been genetically modifying organisms ever since the first caveman selected the friendliest puppy out of a litter. Bio-tech merely speeds up the process. Yes there is a (small) chance that something might go wrong, but it is a certainty that resistance to pesticides and medicines will develop. Sometimes, just sometimes, the devil you don't know is better than the devil you do know.
posted by ambulocetus at 4:10 AM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


The impact of malaria goes far beyond number of fatalities. The loss of work due to illness and cost of treatment are also very large burdens on the affected people, families and countries.
posted by Walleye at 4:41 AM on December 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


Also, it is worth noting that mosquito-borne diseases ravage large parts of the world where the mosquito that spreads them is not even a native species. It is hard to imagine that eliminating a particular mosquito species would have unintended impacts that are more significant than introducing mosquitos to entirely different ecosystems.
posted by snofoam at 5:34 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ask almost anyone who has taken them, anti-malaria pills are nightmare pills. I wouldn't wish those as a solution on anyone.
posted by furtive at 5:48 AM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


GMOs are not, in and of themselves, inherently evil. We've been genetically modifying organisms ever since the first caveman selected the friendliest puppy out of a litter.

As an analogy, dog breeding is like the slider settings when creating a game character – except I've yet to play a game where you can select hip dysplasia. Gene editing is more like hacking someone else's code: you have a rough idea what the code's doing, but there's little documentation and if things go wrong when released, you can't issue a patch.

GMO is just a tool – but it's so powerful, and because there's no way to put the lid back on the jar once a modified gene is in the wild, that I think it's understandable why people are so wary of it.
posted by mushhushshu at 5:49 AM on December 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


Humanity is already causing a massive extinction event. The least we can do is make sure we fucking take mosquitos out too.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:07 AM on December 15, 2016 [23 favorites]


"While "specifically" targeting a single species of mosquito sounds very practical and temptingly quick, if humans exist as beings capable of scientific research, it's because of evolution. Scientific research has also taught us that evolution can move very quickly. In a single generation (that's just one example)."
That's ...the goal.

We want to use the weird and counter-intuitive particulars of how evolution can work sometimes to drive this species to extinction.
"Or – as it's directly targeting mosquito fertility, which evolution kinda sorta likes to favor, how do we know the targeted species won't evolve a way out of it? Thus creating super-species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes?"
Much has been made of antibiotic resistant "superbugs" in the media, and they do tend to be increasingly much worse than the bugs we've been seeing in the recent past, but why is almost never explained. Before the advent of the antibiotic era we had precious little we could do to combat bacterial infections, and thus commensal friendly bacteria would evolve ways to spread to other human hosts faster by making us sick and there wasn't really much at all we could do about it. The big obvious thing that antibiotics did was allow us to treat sick people with miraculous efficacy, but perhaps the even bigger though less obvious thing they did was to shape the evolution of the microbes associated with us. Quite suddenly, evolving ways to make their human hosts sick was no longer a successful strategy for bacteria as it would just make them a bigger target for doctors to apply antibiotics. Within just a few short years whole lineages of bacteria associated with us and the virulence strategies they used functionally went extinct.

What make superbugs 'super' isn't the antibiotic resistance itself, if anything that resistance often comes with a mild to severe fitness cost, its that beautiful evolutionary dynamic falling apart. We no longer have a way to control the evolution of significantly resistant bugs, and so they are rapidly evolving back into those old strategies that were so viscerally terrifying. To abuse a phrase from Jonathan Edwards, this whole time over the last 60 years we have been but sneezers in the hands of an angry God. Damnation didn’t slumber, the pit of those ecological niches was always prepared, the fire made ready, the furnace hot, ready to receive us, and the flames do now rage and glow.

So while its true that antibiotics led to the crisis of superbugs we are seeing today, really what makes those bugs super isn't new at all. All antibiotics have done is given us a glorious window in which our parents and ourselves could enjoy a world without epidemic bacterial disease - and hopefully give us the strength to figure out something to do next. It is unlikely that these gene drives could produce resistant super-species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but if they did two generations from now, that would be an utterly amazing thing. Without exaggeration, one of the greatest things mankind will have ever done. The 1.3% of GDP growth that malaria saps from countries it is endemic in over two generations would be represent the kind of wealth that would produce all the agency and sovereignty needed to address those resistant super-species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and so much more.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:30 AM on December 15, 2016 [17 favorites]


It's not the mosquitoes but what people who are less responsible and more wrong-headed might do with gene drive that's the problem. And there aren't any do-overs.
posted by lagomorphius at 6:40 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


I heard about this on NPR just yesterday, and the mosquito thing is interesting, but I feel like it's burying the lede. I can't wait for somebody to do a FPP on gene drive (I mean, somebody who really understands the biology.)
posted by spacewrench at 6:47 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Paging Noms_Tiem.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:03 AM on December 15, 2016


One thing that bothers me about discussions on genetic modification is the automatic knee jerk reaction exemplified in the title ("What could go wrong?"), which implies that scientists aren't thinking about the potential negative consequences. It seems like such an obvious thing to consider that I feel like it's insulting to imply scientists are too blind to consider these things. Yes, scientists are human like everyone else--they make mistakes--but let's have an honest discussion about the subject and not just assume that scientists are too far down their own ego hole to actually consider both positive and negative effects of their work.
posted by Quiscale at 7:06 AM on December 15, 2016 [13 favorites]


Blasdelb, anyone who explains bacterial evolution in terms of a Puritsin jeremiad is OK in my book!
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:13 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


This has nothing to do with the scientists actually doing the research. Here's what could go wrong:

Some powerful crank decides that they don't like a certain population of human beings, so they decide that a good way to get rid of that population is to somehow introduce an infertility gene coupled with gene drive to that population. That powerful crank has enough money and power and to acquire the resources to create such a thing and make it happen. And that powerful crank doesn't consider that their scheme will cause any other problems because they don't believe that the population of people they want to get rid of are actually human beings. So once it's out, it's out. The only way to get rid of it would be to round up everybody carrying the gene and sterilize them, and that is not going to happen.
posted by lagomorphius at 7:23 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


So don't do the research in a public setting, so that when the powerful crank develops the technology independently, we are less able to identify, address and ameliorate the damage they do?
posted by howfar at 7:29 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm all for eradicating the malaria bugs and I don't have a big problem with some other forms of GMO when they permit more efficient food production using less pesticides and less fertilizer.

But I am concerned about what kinds of genetic modifications could be considered somewhere down the slippery slope. All the way at the bottom of that slope, you get to designer babies of all kinds. (How about an NBA prospect? We can splice in the 7-foot gene.) But long before you get to that point, there are a lot of opportunities for modifications that could cause more damage. Should we introduce infertility genes in rats? Should the Australians use GMO to wipe out their non-native rabbit pests (if the current virus strategy fails)? This kind of thinking is already happening — there is a proposal to genetically modify the mouse population on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, to stop the spread of Lyme disease. What inconvenient species is targeted next? What unintended consequences are in store when you start messing with larger mammals?

Again, I'm basically pro-GMO. I think the future of humankind on Earth probably depends on it. But there are good reasons to do it very slowly and very carefully especially when we move from plant crops to non-crops and animals.
posted by beagle at 7:34 AM on December 15, 2016


FWIW, there are lots of anti-CRISPR-Cas proteins in the wild, so it wouldn't be surprising if a target population of mosquitoes - or their commensal bacteria - develop resistance.
posted by clawsoon at 7:37 AM on December 15, 2016


fraula: "how do we know the targeted species won't evolve a way out of it? Thus creating super-species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes?"

But if the "super" property is that the mosquitoes are immune to the gene-drive sterility technique, how is that functionally any worse than not using the technique?
posted by RobotHero at 8:05 AM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


The only way to get rid of it would be to round up everybody carrying the gene and sterilize them, and that is not going to happen.
Are you sure there's no solution between "wait for extinction" and "forced sterilization"? Make the 23andMe SNP test suite 0.001% bigger, let the people in NeoHitler's target demographic get cheek swabs for $100 (or for free; I'll bet a sufficient fraction of socialized medicine opponents are willing to make an exception for attempted-genocide victims), and let them (or again, financially help them) decide to adopt (or artificially inseminate, or try whatever CRISPR therapy exists) themselves.

I had my own biological kids and I'll be the first to admit that that's an appealing thing to do, but I'd like to hope that if I was a carrier of a mass-sterilization gene I'd have been willing to sterilize myself and adopt kids without a vasectomy surgeon having to sneak up behind me with chloroform first.

The "powerful crank" risk would still apply to the first few generations of victims, before someone noticed the "women with this patrilineal ancestor are all sterile" pattern... but the nice thing about exponential growth is that it doesn't really kick in until the *last* few generations, not the first. Plus, we're talking about humans now, with *much* longer generations than mosquitoes. Add a gene drive to one male embryo, and suppose he has two sons and two daughters, and his two sons give him four grandsons and four granddaughters... and by the time those four granddaughters are all having trouble conceiving just like their aunts did, things are looking pretty suspicious, it's already at least half a century later, and our attempted genocide has only harmed 13 lives. If only every genocide was so ineffective!

There may be very scary things that powerful cranks figure out how to do with genes over the next half a century, but they'll need to have some *much* faster mode of transmission than a gene drive.

Ironically, if I were a powerful mass-murdering bioengineering crank, I'd definitely try for a mosquito-borne disease. Keeping the disease bloodborne gives you potential for a heavy payload, but simultaneously giving it an airborne vector gives you potential for a rapid spread.

It would be nice if there were something we can do to put an end to that vulnerability...
posted by roystgnr at 8:11 AM on December 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


We're very close to exterminating the guinea worm and I don't see a lot of conservationists crying over that one.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


On the recent 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, my dad posted about his own father, who the day after Pearl Harbor walked into a recruiting office. When he told the recruiter he was an entomology grad student, the recruiter said "finish your degree, then come back." So that's what he did.

My grandpa spent the war fighting not the Axis, but fleas and mosquitoes. He and his comrades are the reason WWII was the first war where more Americans died from violence than from disease.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:24 AM on December 15, 2016 [20 favorites]


Some powerful crank decides that they don't like a certain population of human beings, so they decide that a good way to get rid of that population is to somehow introduce an infertility gene coupled with gene drive to that population.

Even if you grant that this scenario is realistic, I'm struggling to see how this relates to using the technique to eradicate a certain species of mosquito. Like, seriously, I cannot see how you're connecting the dots.

(But this scenario has a lot of problems, as has been pointed out.)

Are you suggesting we should stop all genetic research that could lead to these kinds of techniques, and burn or bury what we already know? Because from your point of view, it's the knowledge that's dangerous. It's not the decision to wipe out a species; we've done that before, including intentionally. You're afraid of the how.

That genie's out of the bottle already. And it's not like refusing to kill mosquitos is what's holding us back from genocide.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:36 AM on December 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


"how do we know the targeted species won't evolve a way out of it? Thus creating super-species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes?"

How do we know they won't out-evolve insecticides? How do we know plasmodium won't out evolve out medical treatments? The mosquiotos out evolving this technique doesn't put off behind where we are today. It is a new tool attacking a new facet of the disease: We should (responsibly!) use it.
posted by maryr at 8:45 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Besides a gene drive, the mosquitoes also get a gene that makes their eyes and other parts of their bodies glow red under laser light if the gene drive has taken hold.

Terminator 6: The Suckening
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:20 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


How do we know they won't out-evolve insecticides?

It's happening now.

How do we know plasmodium won't out evolve out medical treatments?

It's happening now.

You don't hear too many people saying that we should stop using insecticides, or stop treating malaria patients, though.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:30 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


GMOs are not, in and of themselves, inherently evil.

BURN THE HERETIC!!1!1!!!
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:39 AM on December 15, 2016


Something I've always wondered about is the fascination with eradicating female mosquitos. I understand that they are the vector for malaria, but wouldn't it be possible for example to breed them to ignore humans as a food source?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:49 AM on December 15, 2016


wouldn't it be possible for example to breed them to ignore humans as a food source?

We're a hell of a long ways off from being able to just breed organisms to behave however we want. You might as well try to breed, like, dogs who love carrots but hate broccoli. And then somehow introduce those dogs into the dog population in such a way that they outcompete all other dogs.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:41 AM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


First they came for aegypti and I said nothing.... you know where it ends.
posted by humanfont at 5:18 PM on December 15, 2016


Discourse and deliberation may be dying in much of the US these days, but it's really been heartening to watch the development of this particular issue in the more rational segment of the population over the last few years. It wasn't that long ago that there was a fairly evenly divided debate about the wisdom of this strategy, including various times this has turned up here. The arguments that now lead off these threads used to take longer to arrive, were less well articulated, and usually didn't foresee and pre-rebut the various counter arguments. And now, fairly shortly later, we're already approaching a near consensus based, I think, mainly on the superior moral and scientific arguments for eradication. It's not so much that I'm glad to see the right side winning (though I am), as that watching the way it is winning is really heartening. We may correctly decry the collapse of fact, reason, and even basic morality in contemporary discourse, but that's really only a function of one half of our society. The other half is getting better and better at thinking through complicated issues, and selecting and honing the best arguments until we have deliberated ourselves towards a better judgment and course of action. They may stymie us yet, even in something as apparently non-partisan as this, but in any case, watching this particular issue evolve suggests to me (in my momentarily optimistic mood) that at least half of us really are getting collectively smarter about thinking through hard things and arriving at the best conclusions.
posted by chortly at 9:31 PM on December 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


First they came for aegypti and I said nothing.... you know where it ends.

Godwin?
posted by maryr at 10:37 AM on December 17, 2016


We're a hell of a long ways off from being able to just breed organisms to behave however we want.

Behavior modification comes in many forms. You could (?) for example introduce a genetic trait where a telltale enzyme in human blood would kill, or sterilize or at least prevent sustenance in mosquitos.

Of course the (?) is pretty big there, but all the solutions I see seem to go straight for speciocide.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:14 PM on December 17, 2016


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