The Box is Open, Now What?

Charles Mueller

Today we have the ability to modify the DNA in any organism we can isolate.  Yet we still don’t have the knowledge to be able to precisely know how these changes will translate into new behaviors. 

In the latest example, the people of Key Haven, Florida are about to be part of new medical experiment, approved by the FDA, and to be carried out by a company called Oxitec.  This company is planning to release millions of genetically modified mosquitos into the wild in hopes of containing the spread of the Zika virus.  Really cool idea, but do we know if there are any potential negative consequences?  Well according the FDAs Environmental Assessment the people of Key Haven have nothing to worry about.  How exactly was the FDA able to make such a call?

Most of the ability to say that certain genetic modifications in other species (or even humans) will not have an impact on human health is based on laboratory data and existing biological theory, not on actual direct evidence, like human clinical trials.  There would be no problem with this except for the fact laboratory data rarely translates into the clinic and our existing biological theory is incomplete, routinely riddled with “exceptions” that are only understood in hindsight.  The process therefore banks on a scientific consensus that boils down to an educated prediction.  So when the FDA reviewed Oxitec’s data and the theories they cited, it is simply not possible for them say with certainty that releasing genetically modified mosquitos into the wild will not have an impact on human health or the environment; no direct evidence exists to support such a claim or even a solid theory to back it up.

As scientists, we want to test our ideas and challenge our theories, but we have to do it wisely.  We have to do it with foresight and we need to accept that we may need to move more slowly towards the really exciting experiments.  It is our job to ensure we don’t become cowboys firing off experiments with unknown consequences whenever we gather enough support or have a nice financial incentive (Oxitec looks to make $400M off this technology).  We need to be humble, we need to move forward, but we must always remain cautious when our experiments are potentially playing in a sandbox we’ve never played in before.

In order to move forward properly we need to accept we probably don’t know as much as we think we do.  If we are going to continue to mess with the DNA of organisms and the nature of ecosystems let’s at least make sure we are doing our best to collect all the data about what is changing when we do this and obtain consent from the people potentially affected.  If we do that, we can use the information to better inform our policies on how to appropriately design and manage these new “experiments”.

Pandora’s box is open and the situation surrounding the use of the Oxitec mosquito is just the hot issue in the news today.  We need a strategy to fill our gaps in the knowledge of biological sciences and in how to manage this awesome power over how life on this planet exists and evolves.

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