It’s been a busy week in the world of applied biology. Genetically modified mosquitoes were released in the Cayman Islands in an effort to disrupt Zika virus transmission; Florida is considering a similar intervention now that infections have occurred there. While the FDA approved the use of such mosquitoes, Congress has prevented it from even considering any procedures that intentionally modify human embryos in an inheritable way. Meanwhile, the NIH is preparing to fund research involving human-animal hybrids (think pigs with organs suitable for human transplant, not centaurs or werewolves). And that’s not to mention the ongoing conversation about the use of genetically modified organisms for food which factors into the political landscape this election season.
Having mentioned all of these stories together, I actually want to emphasize how these various lines of research differ. Releasing mosquitoes to control the mosquito population is a bit counter-intuitive on its face and evokes our long and not-always-successful history of trying to control animal populations in “the wild.” Genetic editing of human embryos and the creation of human-animal chimeras certainly have ethical considerations, but we generally have different standards for research on human subjects and animal subjects. Not to mention that the techniques involved are completely different, which means they have different risks and different rewards. GMO crops are a different story yet again with implications not only for what we eat but also the ecological consequences of our agricultural practices. All of these topics warrant policy conversations, but what applies to one may not carry over directly to another.
Maybe the differences between these biological innovations is obvious. But when I see language of “playing God” come up again and again in major media coverage (not to mention headlines about “freaks of nature“) and sarcastic “What could possibly go wrong?” replies all over the comments of those stories, I wonder if they are all being filed under “Dr. Moreau, The Island of.” As a Christian, I absolutely think theology and philosophy should be involved whenever questions of stewardship and treatment of vulnerable individuals arise. As a citizen of a democratic republic, I think everyone is entitled to engage in the conversation of how we spend our finite research dollars. As a biologist, I want to encourage a rich understanding of the science involved. Yes, it can get complex at times and the little details can matter, but it’s not impossible to understand the key concepts. Your friendly neighborhood biologist would be happy to help; go ahead and ask! And be encouraged; our collective understanding of science is better than some polls and tests of individuals might suggest.