halfway down the slippery slope: genetic engineering pt. I

so this question concerns genetic engineering. we all know that genetic tinkerers should have some kind of humility when practicing their craft; opinion tends only to diverge when it comes to HOW MUCH. but what if a certain engineer is not manipulating genomes for his or human favor?

for instance, what if i were to go into my basement, with my rather extensive and expensive deoxyribonucleic acid sequencers and whatnot, and decided to give evolution a wedgie. that is, i decide to show evolution where it obviously missed the boat, and make for instance a spider with a phosphorescent midsection. think about it- moths and other multitudes of bugs swarm around our lights. if a spider’s ass glowed, it would probably double its yield.

would i be amiss? what do you all think of the morality of this? am i a bad person if i make a rattlesnake who’s warning sounds like a Fran Drescher-esque laugh? what do you think, sirs?


jb farley

I suspect if glowing spiders were a good idea it would have come up by now. Consider that glowing might attract not only moths, but also clever predators?

As to the morality, yeah I would have to weigh in on the side of DEFINATELY IMMORAL.

Actually, a glowing abdomen probably wouldn’t be sufficient to attract insects. The spider would have to glow more brightly, from a distance, than the full moon in order to attract insects (particularly moths, who use the moon for nocturnal navigation).

How about just giving the spider a Death Ray? :slight_smile:

Well, why mess with nature? How do we know at one point spiders did have glowing asses, but it was more of a disadvantage so they evolved to not have glowing asses?

And IMHO, glowing spiders would be freaky but cool. Kinda like the glowing fish.

I’m less concerned with whether it’s morally good/bad in someone’s particular moral code than I am in whether what you’re doing might inadvertantly mess up the delicate balance of life on the planet. Then we’re all screwed and it won’t matter whether we thought it was justifiable or not.

Problem is, it’s not easy to tell what the outcome of this stuff is. Yeah, OK, so you make a glowing spider. which seems on the surface of it like no big deal. But who is to say what might happen if spidey becomes really successful and ends up causing a dearth of certain type if insects, which in turn causes other creatures to starve themselves into extinction, etc, til we’ve destroyed the ecosystem. Oops.

I’d just rather we don’t mess with anything without a damn good reason.

So I’m as close to a genetic engineer as you will probably get on this board. Except maybe bio-brat (she should be around shortly, I suppose). I’m getting a PhD in Genetics in a Large Medical School in which they are sequencing 1/5 of the human genome.

So a couple of points :

  1. We are still really dumb when it comes to genetic manipulation (or doing what we will with the genome like inserting genes). We really have it down pat in only a few organisms : E. coli and friends (bacteria), S. cerevisiae (Brewers’ yeast), C. elegans (nematode), D. melanogaster and a few friends (fruit fly), Dictyostelium discoideum (social amoebae), Mus musculus and a few friends (mouse) and a little in Rattus rattus (rats). Also, in zebrafish, many plants and other minor organisms and cell cultures but I personally don’t care much about them.

  2. We have to carefully control genetic background in lab animals in order to control a study. For instance, if we make you mutant, we have to compare you to “normal.” The best way to do this is to compare you to a close relative (for instance your brother) that has not been mutagenized. Now, my brother is 6"4, good-looking, and installs car stereos, while I am 5"9’, ugly, and an MD/PhD candidate. Not to imply intelligence, though, cause he is probably a lot brighter than me. Anyway, the point is that normal people may not look a lot like their sibs, so we have to force this unnaturally. This is done (in mice) by mating brother to sister for 40 or more generations. Rocks are smarter than the mice we get out of these “inbred strains.” Same thing with the E. coli we use : unlike all that poopie going down in Montreal last month, you can eat lab strains of coli with no adverse effects. Same thing across the board – the strains are highly refined so we can forget about genetic background, and all the animals look and behave the same.

  3. So now you are left with a dumb mouse that is perhaps smarter than his dumber siblings. Or a stupid spider that glows in the dark. All that you have to do is leave the cage open and let him breed with the “wild-type” animals living in the walls and crawl-spaces, which is a challenge seeing how dumb these animals are. If this small-probability event actually occurs, then we have introduced a new gene into the population.
    a) Genetic engineers are nowhere near as graceful as nature. 90% of the time when we manipulate the genome, we cause serious damage and reduce the fitness of the organism.
    b) Evolution is so flexible, we probably are not introducing something that nature hasn’t tried before (anthropomorphism alert sorry).

  4. Lastly, it is difficult to get NIH funding if your research proposal is “I want to build a hardier race of spiders.” Or at least I would hope.

This is why we have probably not seen the fruits of genetic tinkering in the wild. A subnote for the nitpickers is that genetic engineering has been around for thousands of years in the form of selective breeding, which of course has penetrated into the “wild” population and redefined the wild population. This has led to all nature of kooky things like dingos, feral cats, mustangs, Africanized honey bees, and I’m sure tons of other examples which I am not being aware of right now.

I’d give genetic engineering a little time to catch up.

Advances in knowledge are usually dualistic in nature. There often seems to be both good and bad attributes. It is a prudent society that recognizes each, attempting to minimize one while maximizing the other.

When Og discovered fire (right DrF?) it revolutionized mankind, yet fire is also responsible for many terrible disasters. The spear allowed him to compete with predators and hunt for food, but many humans have lost their lives at its tip. Rockets have been used to bomb entire cities – they have also been our chariots to the Moon.

Humans have inadvertently introduced many species into new habitats with dire consequences. No doubt we will do so in the future. Genetics is an extremely powerful technology that we certainly should use with caution. But a Chicken Little approach will ultimately serve the best interests of no one.

ren said
>I’m less concerned with whether it’s morally good/bad in >someone’s particular moral code than I am in whether what >you’re doing might inadvertantly mess up the delicate >balance of life

i could not agree with you more (‘if i had…’ phrase to follow, but i couldn’t come up with a THING!). to restate my question in more specific terms, remove the specter of ‘trying to improve humanity’s lot’. is genetic engineering bad or good? or to put it more greyscale, what are the evils of inserting genetic code where it wasn’t before? i realize that crossbreeding and the like have brought us our share of good (black labs) and ill (killer bees).

but what is the absolute (in all of your opinions) morality of tinkering with the atgc code? assuming of course that a human could tinker without his/her personal beliefs interfering said tinkering…


p.s.- i am a recent poster, but a long-time reader of tstmb. wally, where ever you are and whatever you are doing, may you be at peace.

Killer bees are the result of crossbreeding? I don’t think so. Of course, I’m so tired I’m probably wrong…

OK, morality of genetic engineering. Why are people so scared of this? Well, bad sci-fi mostly, to answer my own question. There is so much good that will come from this technology. Of course there will be potential problems - same with everything, as has been pointed out ad nauseum. But the potential for helping humankind and the rest of the earth is so enormous that it would be a crime to stop it based on some nebulous fears. Frankly, scientists are so paranoid about scaring the public that I don’t think anyone will dare fiddle with humans much for a long time.
Yikes. Gotta go to bed sometime.

One danger of genetically modified organisms right now is that there is no regulation of them. According to the FDA if it still looks like a tomato and tastes like a tomato (sort of), even though fish genes have been inserted into it, it is a tomato. No labeling required to notify the consumer if they are eating fish genes with their tomatoes. No long-term safety testing required.

This no labeling practice has implications for many people in the population. Off the top of my head, vegetarians, people that keep kosher (they can only eat certain types of fish), and people allergic to fish come to mind.

The lack of extensive testing has problems that we are yet to see. The beginning of the problems in crops that have been altered to produce more Bt that we do know so far are things like Monarch butterfly larvae deaths, the farmworkers developing allergies to Bt in altered crops, decreased fertility in ladybugs that have eaten aphids that fed on GM crops, Bt resistant insects, and cross-pollination from the GM crops to organic crops.

Then there is the terminator technology. They have made seeds that will not reproduce in the next generation. They claim to be trying to fight world hunger but then they come up with this kind of techonology. It’s bad enough for the farmer that buys this seed and then has buy new seeds every year, but what about the genetic drift? They could be causing all crops to develop this trait. In 1999 Monsanto abandoned terminator technology, but they still hold the patents that they might use for the future.

I’ll try not to say much about recombinant bovine growth hormone that is given to dairy cows. I could go on for days about it. Let’s just say that my biggest pet peeve against it is the fact that by developing optimum nutrition, exercise, pregnancy spacing, and milk machines the dairy industry already managed to make an oversupply of milk. Then Monsanto comes along and makes rBGH which causes undo stress on the cows to produce more gallons of milk. When a cow is spent and her dairy days are over, she now weighs less than her ancestors in pre-rBGH days but her organs weigh more because she has been under considerable stress. Why?

So, jb, I’m going to say with the lessons we already haven’t learned from GMO’s that you just can’t know what effect a glowing spider is going to have on the whole ecosystem.

Smeghead, yes, killer bees are the effect of crossbreeding. I don’t remember the details, but someone brought the African bees to the Americas and the rest is history.

Aggressive, heavy honey-producing African bees
Passive, low-yield German-derived bees
was intended to equal
Passive, high-honey-yield bees.

Instead they got aggressive, low-yield bees.

Go fig.
As to the OP, AFAIC morality is irrelevant. Provided we don’t screw things up too badly by not considering effects to the biosphere and ecosystems (and I know that’s a huge caveat), why shouldn’t we tinker? Hell, we’ve been tinkering for millennia (triticale, anyone?).

SloMoMom, as I understand it rBGH has not in any way been proven harmful to humans or the environment. As for “undue stress” on the cows, puh-leeeze. Like a dairy farm isn’t stressful already? If that’s your concernn, you might want to head for the root of the issue (hint: it isn’t rBGH).

Further, I’m not sure where you got the fish genes in tomatoes thing. Can you provide some cites, please?

As a final note, Monsanto might be a large player in the genetic world, but it might be a good idea to bear a couple things in mind. Firstly, they aren’t the only player. And secondly, no amount of paranoid anti-corp rhetoric will turn them into the Antichrist.

I don’t believe I mentioned any health effects on humans from rBGH on this thread. My point is that if there is already an oversupply of milk, then why should the cow’s be put under any more stress to produce more?

I also don’t think I called Monsanto the anti-Christ. I said that have abondoned the terminator technology for now. They might have been ignorant (IMO) to come up with such use for genetic alteration in food crops, but they would have to keep using it to be evil.

I’ll have to do some digging for the fish-spliced tomatoes. They were one of the first GMO’s to come on the market. The purpose is to make the tomatoes take longer to spoil. As far as I know, there have been no health effects from this, although the taste suffers a little. I’ll see if I can find a reference for you. It’s such an old story, I don’t know what I’ll be able to find.

Perhaps I got my GM tomatoes mixed up. On http://www.natural-law.ca/platform97/genetic.html they say that fish-spliced tomatoes are grown to be frost-resistant. I knew it was to extend the time that tomatoes could be sent to consumers without being grown in a greenhouse (expensive).

The Flavr Savr tomato used a backward tomato-ripening gene to keep from softening as early as natural tomatoes. I just wanted to clarify since I said that the fish gene slowed spoiling.

re somomom:

yeah, i believe the logic of the troumato was that trout (trouts?) can freeze in a lake, and be unfrozen with no ill effects. the trout gene was spliced into the tomatoes to make them somehow more resistant to ice crystals forming within the cells (that last part is based on hazy recollections- grain of salt alert)

That line confused me. First of all:

(That’s from here.)

Secondly, shouldn’t we draw a distinction between the type of tinkering that involves splicing stems or cross-pollenization and the type that involves direct manipulation of genetic material in the lab?

IMHO the latter is a whole new ballgame in terms its potential to do good and its potential problems.

True. But you got me thinking about the tone of a lot of debates here. I wonder if I came across that way or you were referring to someone else. This seems to be a tricky issue.

Personally, anti-technology rants really rankle me. OTOH, I don’t believe knee-jerk resistance to technological progress is any more viable an approach than its opposite, the sort of technomania that brooks no opposition to tinkering just because we can do it.

A lot of good science comes from tinkering just to see what we can learn. That doesn’t mean we need to get our hackles up when someone asks us to justify our actions. It should be reasonable to raise concerns about the pursuit of a scientific goal. That in an of itself does not constitute a “Chicken Little” mentality.

What if some vindictive, sociopathic kid with a Home Gene Splicing Kit decides to make an Ebola-like virus and unleash it upon the “cruel world”?

SoMoMom wrote:
Then there is the terminator technology. They have made seeds that will not reproduce in the next generation. They claim to be trying to fight world hunger but then they come up with this kind of techonology. It’s bad enough for the farmer that buys this seed and then has buy new seeds every year, but what about the genetic drift? They could be causing all crops to develop this trait. In 1999 Monsanto abandoned terminator technology, but they still hold the patents that they might use for the future.


If a farmer didn’t want seeds with the terminator technology, he would have still had the freedom to use something else. No one was forcing anyone to use it. It was Monsanto’s hope that the other benefits of their seed were great enough that someone would pay money for only one crop. I thought it was a great idea. Protesting against it is like saying “we don’t want you to put copy protection on your product, because that would keep us from stealing it.” Exactly the point.

And if there’s any GM technology that’s absolutely safe from polluting other plants, it’s the terminator gene. How could it get into other plants? Any plant that picked up that particular trait would not be able to pass it on to its successors.

I don’t think so. Most scientists who are familiar with it see no inherent difference between gene splicing and doing the old-fashioned way, except that gene splicing is quicker.

Yes, ren, I realize that triticale is a very recent invention. But it sounded good.

I could have just as easily said “Rye anyone?”

Curt’s absolutely right–there is no realistic difference between genetically manipulated species and hybridized species.


Perhaps we should draw a distinction, but not the one you have in mind. Cross-fertilization is a more or less random process, which can have unpredictable results. Witness the “killer bees” referenced earlier in the thread. At least direct manipulation of genetic material has the advantage of minimizing the number of variables involved.

I was speaking in generalities and certainly didn’t mean to offend. I must confess that I do become agitated when anyone recommends ignorance to stave off a potential imagined harm. Of course reasonable safeguards should be in place to help prevent an ecological disaster. How could anyone think otherwise? But I did have this statement of yours specifically in mind:

IMO, this does have a certain “sky is falling” quality to it.


I don’t think we should market a Home Gene Splicing Kit, much as we do not sell a Home Neutron Bomb Making Kit. But I must point out there already is an Ebola-like virus unleashed upon this cruel world, along with numerous other nasty viruses.

A couple posters responded this way, but I think they were referring to the subset of GE concerned with agriculture. I was thinking not only of that, but of all GE. The OP doesn’t seem to be specifically about agriculture.

I agree that there’s not necessarily much difference between splicing stems and splicing cells in order to create improved crops.

But I still think there’s a big difference between those applications, and creating glowing spiders (to use the OP again). You can’t get glowing spiders by trying to mate them with lightning bugs. You HAVE to manipulate the genetic code manually. This leads to the possibility of creating organisms that could NOT be created in any other way. That’s a quantum leap in GE’s potential!