Genetic engineering interventions in evolution require a high level of ethical responsibility
Researchers such as Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna, who was involved in the development of CRISPR/Cas, like to suggest that new genetic engineering (New GE or new genomic techniques, NGT) can be used to technically optimise evolution, and thus adapt it to human needs: “Gone are the days when life was shaped exclusively by the plodding forces of evolution. We are standing on the cusp of a new area, one in which we will have primary authority over life’s makeup and all its vibrant and varied outputs. Indeed, we are already supplanting the deaf, dumb, and blind system that has shaped genetic material on our planet for eons and replacing it with a conscious, intentional system of human-directed evolution.” (Doudna, J.A.; Sternberg, S.H. (2018) A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution)
The interrelationships between species conservation, biology and evolution are often disregarded when it comes to interventions in the ‘nature of life’ with (new) genetic engineering. However, the manifold technical potentials and possible New GE applications raise the fundamental question about what happens when these organisms encounter naturally co-evolved networks.
There is the danger that large-scale release and spread of genetically engineered organisms could destabilise ecosystems. If specific tipping points are reached, a chain reaction can develop that could significantly jeopardise the preservation of biodiversity in the future. There is a parallel in the temporal dimension to the dangers of climate change: the course of future developments is being set right now – and will in many cases not be reversible. Many of the decisions made by previous generations can now no longer be corrected. For example, once the sea level has risen by a few metres, even the most effective measures to reduce greenhouse gases will no longer make any difference.
A similar scenario could arise with (new) genetic engineering: if organisms are released that can spread uncontrollably in the environment and disrupt or even destroy natural ecosystems, there is also a risk of exceeding tipping points that make it impossible to return to the previous state and 'natural' development dynamics.
Human activity has caused considerable damage to nature ever since industrialisation first began: large parts of biodiversity are now extinct, and more and more species and habitats are under massive threat. Now, (new) genetic engineering techniques could be used to intervene in the very basis of heredity, and thus constitute a massive threat of changing what could be considered the actual ‘nature of life’.
It is a fact that large numbers of New GE organisms across numerous species with a wide range of different traits, could soon be released into the environment within a short period of time. Many could spread uncontrollably, and it is to be expected that complex interactions will occur both between the different New GE organisms and with their environment, possibly creating new kinds of hazards. It is, therefore, important to maintain control over releases of New GE organisms. Against this backdrop, Testbiotech sees the need to carefully examine and limit the type and quantity of organisms released into the environment, in particular, to prevent uncontrolled spread. To maintain this level of control, all genetically engineered organisms must in future be subject to an approval assessment and still be traceable after being brought to market. The concepts of nature conservation and environmental protection are largely based on the principle of avoiding interventions. These concepts must also be applied in the field of genetic engineering. Fundamental reservations against the release of genetically engineered organisms must be given more weight in future.
New genetic engineering vs. animal welfare
New genetic engineering techniques (NGTs) are being used in animal breeding to develop livestock for more or better meat. This involves knocking out gene variants in various animal species of the so-called myostatin gene (MSTN), which is responsible for controlling muscle growth. The aim is to increase meat production. These effects are already known from conventional cattle breeding, where they are associated with higher meat yields, but also considerable animal welfare problems. New genetic engineering is, therefore, aiming to introduce this trait into animals and breeds where these gene variants have not previously been present.
Another approach to increasing meat production is centred on the leptin gene, which is responsible for the regulation of appetite. If this gene is blocked with NGTs, the animals eat more and can therefore gain weight more quickly. This should make animal husbandry more cost-effective, and meat and fish production more efficient.
Similar experiments have been carried out on cattle, sheep, pigs, fish and dogs.
Stillbirths, organ damage and malformations occurred in pigs during these experiments. Cloning is often used in NGT applications in pigs, sheep and cattle, and could therefore be relevant in this context, as these procedures are known to frequently lead to errors in gene regulation.
While most projects in mammals are still in the research and development phase, fish with increased muscle growth and accelerated weight gain are already being commercialised in Japan. As expected, animal welfare issues are an issue: sea bream with a defective MSTN gene not only have increased muscle growth, but also shortened body length and misalignment of the dorsal vertebrae. Compared to non-genetically engineered fish, they gain weight faster and appear to move less. Pufferfish with a blocked leptin gene suffer from a metabolic disorder or diabetes-like symptoms, which is the reason they gain weight faster and become heavier than their conspecifics. None of these NGT fish have been subjected to a thorough risk assessment by the authorities. Here, profit comes at the expense of animal health.
New genetic engineering is being used in attempts to breed animals especially suitable for intensive livestock farming. The altered traits mean that these NGT animals may need less feed and can be slaughtered within shorter periods of time, thus enabling greater numbers of animals to be fattened and meat production to be increased. However, this also reinforces undesirable developments in factory farming, increases the overall burden on the environment and is associated with considerable animal welfare problems. Consumers have so far shown very little interest in buying such products. For example, demand for transgenic salmon, which supposedly grows faster and can be marketed, amongst others, in Canada, was so low that the economic survival of the company behind it, AquaBounty, is at stake .