Threshold of the unknown
Within our human genome—which has evolved over eons—is contained the essence or “sameness” (identity) that separates us from all other species. But the innate intellectual capacity of mankind gives us the potential to break this natural trajectory and sever the barriers that separate us from the rest of the animal and plant kingdoms. The natural obstacles can—and are—being breached. The outcome puts a question mark over the future of human identity itself.
Heeding Hercules’ warning
The Smithsonian Institution informs us that in 1956 several colonies of African honeybees were imported into Brazil with the intention of crossing them with local populations to increase the production of honey. The following year more than 20 African queens, with swarms of European worker bees escaped. Ever since, their offspring have been gradually spreading northwards through South and Central America at the rate of 100 to 200 miles per year.
These have been dubbed “Killer Bees” because they may attack people in greater numbers than European honeybees. Fatalities have resulted. Victims have been known to receive ten times as many stings as European strains. In addition, they react faster to disturbances and can chase a person over long distances.
At first, the hives had been fitted with special excluder screens to prevent such an accident from happening. Unfortunately, a visiting beekeeper observed that the excluders were interfering with the worker bees’ movement and removed them, which demonstrates that things can–and do–go wrong from time to time in scientific experiments, despite all precautions.
Ne plus ultra
To interfere artificially with the underlying genetic structure of an embryo can have unforeseen repercussions on the collective genome because the entire body of DNA sequences of a species resides in individuals. The most significant permanent alterations are likely to be artificially induced changes (e.g. gene manipulation and the introduction of non-human and/or synthetic DNA or other unnatural patterns into the human genome). This is especially relevant where these alterations change the genes of future generations (i.e. establish new germlines).
And it matters little if we are Irish, Dutch, Chinese or American, any fundamental negative repercussions are likely to endanger all. How far are we prepared to go in this process? Unfortunately, the riskiest changes will be made by the nation that moves forward with least caution.
The question gives a totally different meaning to ne plus ultra the Latin phrase which literally translates to “no more beyond” and was said to have been inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar, warning sailors not to travel beyond the edge of the known world. The possibilities we now possess for creating irreversible harm when interfering with the human genome strongly suggests that it would be wise to heed Hercules’ warning.
Of course, we might be more optimistic and look forward to a future in which gene manipulation provides positive benefits for humanity, like the control and eventual elimination of diseases. After all, if no one ventured beyond the Pillars of Hercules we might still be in the stone age.
However, how many times has human ingenuity backfired when lessons that nature itself learnt over aeons of evolution are disregarded? ‘Proceed with caution’ would seem to be the best policy.
Cancer physician and researcher Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book The Gene provides a relevant example taken from a genetic conference that dealt with chimeric genes (mixed DNA from two species). It was a conference held at Asilomar in California. Scientists were sparring with each other over the need for caution versus complete autonomy for geneticists to work as they saw fit. Divisions were becoming heated.
It was not until the last evening that the floor was given over to the lawyers. Five attorneys took to the stage to answer questions about the legal consequences of scientists proceeding alone into this new field that was not without some risk.
The lawyers assured the scientists that, assuming even the slightest hint of disease, the institution in question would find itself legally liable. Reaction would be rapid and draconian in that the laboratory would be closed followed by the imposition of sweeping regulations by the federal government. The lawyers suggested that the outcome is likely to be more rigid than any rules that the scientists might be prepared to impose on themselves.
The dire warning prompted a sobered response from the scientists. They worked into the night to resolve the question about how to proceed. Needless to say; caution won. That was 1975.
Opening Pandora’s Box
Dr. Mukherjee refers to the continuing restrictions that centuries of Christian principles in the USA put on embryo research, compared with a more open society like China. He notes that while Western scientists continue to watch Chinese experiments on human embryos with warranted nervousness, Chinese specialists are more sanguine about these experiments.
But the “Easement Rule” is always working in the background. “Easement” occurs when underlying standards are interpreted in incrementally and progressively less rigorous ways over time. The “Easement Rule” has generally been the vehicle through which the move from a more-or-less commonly shared morality and ethics, to a lean towards individual autonomy, has been taking place in the West. Consider the following trend that has developed in recent times.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA) of the UK now allows human-animal mixes to take place in controlled experiments. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) believes that benefits can be gained through “carefully-controlled” stem cell research using chimeric embryos. If this research proves harmful at any stage the RCOG together with Government will ensure that research is stopped immediately. That was 2008.
Writing in Nature, David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon acknowledge how researchers have previously expressed concerns about gene-editing that may open the way to risky or unethical uses of the technology. However, in a world’s first, Chinese scientists reported editing the genomes of human embryos. That was 2015.
The first child—referred to in the media as a “three-parent baby”—was born in Mexico. Its mitochondria, which contain small amounts of non-nuclear DNA, were introduced from a third person. The term is a little misleading, but, according to researcher Catherine Weiner of Harvard University the use of mitochondrial transfer is not without risk. For example, there are concerns about what side effects might arise by having the DNA of three persons in one. That was 2016.
Dr. Mukherjee observes that Chinese experiments on embryos have had an influence on the rest of the world. After all—so the argument goes—if the West does not participate it will never know what’s involved. As a result, the move to change the genome of the human embryo has developed into a type of “intercontinental race”. That observation was also made in 2016.
The first human-pig hybrid was created in 2017 but was killed before it could be born. Then, in November of the same year a new publication in Nature informed the world that a major development in synthetic biology had occurred. Since the common ancestor of all life on Earth appeared, genetic information has been stored in four nucleotides present in DNA (they are represented by four letters A, T, C and G). These combine in what are called base pairs (A combines with T and C with G). Two additional nucleotides now form a third unnatural base pair and may have the potential to create artificial life.
Creating new life forms from artificial DNA may be possible in theory. But we are assured—at least for now—that the new molecular structure is not self-sustaining. As a result, the new form of DNA will not develop further if it escapes from the laboratory. That report appeared in February 2019.
An international team of researchers created embryos containing a mix of human and monkey cells. The controversial project took place in China, rather than in the West but involved western scientists. It shows that some western specialists and institutions are willing to go to great lengths to sidestep moral or legal objections in their home countries and move into contentious areas of scientific research. It brings the possibility of developing a human-monkey chimera to term much closer. That was reported in August 2019.
Now try this exercise. Plot the dates of these developments (from 1975 to 2019) on a timeline and extend the line for decades, centuries or even millennia. Imagine how many more revelations relating to interference with the human genome will be made along the blank space that extends endlessly into the future. Then draw your own conclusions about where we are going as a species.
Why is flying so safe?
Accidents have made flying safer, precisely because there is a strict feed-back mechanism in place to study, in-depth, each near-miss or total catastrophe. The findings are recorded meticulously. Improvements are then applied, strictly, across the world in such a manner that hazardous situations are avoided by decreasing or eliminating risk factors.
The application of new technologies on the human genome is not like aeronautics. Accidents produced by aircraft are normally confined to single machines. In the case of human engineering, mistakes will, undoubtedly, be made. Only in hindsight will we be able to understand why things went wrong.
Unlike flying, however, the outcome for humanity could be widespread problems each time a major mistake is made when interfering with the genome. This is because of possible contagion (for example, a pandemic created unwittingly by building a bridge for disease to cross into humanity through human-animal chimeras, etc).
If something goes really badly wrong and the outcome does lead to a pandemic the process will not have been considered “progressive”. For this reason, the following words are inappropriate when used in the context of human genetic experiments:
- Progressive (which commonly means being open to the “new” and which equates with “better”); and
- Conservative (which equates with the old, overly restrictive, narrow minded, traditionalist and backward).
Given the unprecedented level of change facing humanity it is preferable to distinguish between “modifiers” (those who tend to believe in unrestricted change) rather than “progressives” and “stabilisers” (those who tend to believe in applying a cautionary approach) rather than “conservatives”.
The wider view
Society requires both modifiers and stabilisers. It requires that the drive for change be guided by the wisdom of experience, which means having in place a workable feedback system to correct for errors and avoid catastrophes. Humanity must remain vigilant. It must be able to determine significant threats in good time. It must have a method to estimate levels of risk. It must also have available a sufficiently robust steering mechanism to apply the brakes if our future comes under serious threat. It must be able to redirect the entire course of scientific investigation and its practical application if the need arises. Is modern society prepared to develop such a mechanism? An answer is far from clear, but in the next article we show that there are many forces working to make such a scheme difficult to implement.
 Smithsonian. (nd) Africanized Bees. < here >
 Mukherjee, S. 2016. The Gene. Bodley Head. UK.
Human-monkey hybrid courtesy Kate Clark. Kate is a sculptor who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. For more see her website here
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