CRISPR technology: The Dangers of use in the environment

Last night I watched a pretty surreal documentary on Netflix which basically explained the discovery of CRISPR and how its already being seen and used throughout the world in so called “biohacking”

One of the examples of potential ‘progress’ with this technology was based on Wild Rats (in California I think) that were harbouring Lyme disease, infected by Ticks that were slowly starting to expand their range northwards due to climate change. They said CRISPR can be used to make genotypic changes to make the rats less susceptible or completely impervious to being infected with the disease (which is later transferred to humans). Obviously, such a change might inter a significant/non-significant alteration to the animals metabollic capacity and if the former turns out to be the case, we could be unknowingly facilitating the bio-accumulation of certain toxicants and compounds which in a worst case scenario, could lead to global population collapses of certain species and the ecological fallout that this will bring with it

This is just one example of how things could go ‘pear-shaped’ with the use of this technology when applied to ecological networks, many of which in the world remain very poorly understood and researched

I’d love to know what other problems you guys can foresee coming should this technology really take off (which I personally hope it doesn’t)? If anyone can conceive how this technology could be used to the benefit of ecosystem conservation and well-being, you are also more than welcome to share this with us

Enjoy!

These types of “gene drives” can be done in multiple ways, CRISPR is just the newest technology that makes it even easier. It’s basically genetic manipulation ramped up to gene pool manipulation on a population level, and there’s lots of concern about it. Here’s a news feature from Nature for those unfamiliar with the concept: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02087-5

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Thanks, I didn’t know Gene drives were established before CRISPR

When did this all start exactly? and how?

This is a difficult issue to weigh. Humans will take action against disease and disease-causing organisms–this will always be true. In the past, this has involved the widespread use of insecticides, poisons, the sterile insect technique (SIT), etc. This led to many problems culminating in awareness brought by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Use of SIT lead to complete eradication of a species from the United States–the screwworm. SIT was a more targeted approach than pesticides, but it eliminated an entire species from the ecosystem–and, indirectly, allowed for a much more dense population of cattle which in turn negatively impacted some ecosystems. Similarly, the control of tsetse fly in Africa permitted cattle operations in areas that weren’t possible. This increased ecological damage. Controlling disease-causing agents also allows human populations to expand, further causing ecological damage. But we don’t see many people calling for us to allow nature to control our population (though some have). And some do see a link between disease and human population growth.

Given that humans will take action against disease and disease-causing organisms, perhaps CRISPR (and other gene drive techniques) is better than the alternatives? Whether it is or not, it must be viewed in this context.

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That’s what the cited article describes, briefly. Malaria was the first target. Malaria used to kill millions of people annually. It’s down to about 400,000 annually now. Gene drive was thought to be better than DDT and other insecticides to control the mosquito which transmits malaria–perhaps it is?

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Early gene drive concepts were taking advantage of naturally occurring selfish gene mechanisms, which limited their use. CRISPR has opened it up to all sorts of applications. Wikipedia has a short history section on it, which might be a good starting point to find out more.

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Yes it is as you say: Humans will go to any length to ensure minimum negative impact on our population growth and the rigidity of our species, where the source of such impact is the environment we find ourselves needing nurture and sustenance from (i.e. the natural environment as molested as it remains today)

Funny how slow we are to respond to similar or greater threats to our being from the social bubbles and hierarchial orders we’ve constructed to govern mankind and ensure maximum “happiness” and “wellbeing” for the greatest number in our world

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It’s easy to view things from afar and draw conclusions about how humans should behave for the future of humanity and nature as a whole. But one needs to be able to explain one’s perspective to a room full of people suffering from these diseases. I’d never be able to explain that I’m opposed to doing anything to control Lyme’s disease to my friend’s daughter who can’t walk across the college campus due to the disease’s impact on her body. Even though it may be best that she suffers for the greater good. Humans are not logical creatures, we are emotional creatures.

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We are at risk of delving very deep into the philosophy of the human role (or lack thereof) in the environment :smile: but you are right; individual human perspective has to have a level of value assigned to it in order for it to contribute to the roadmap of where each of us and all of us, simultaneously, believe we should be headed as a species. I think the gap in this belief is now wider than its ever been before, and perhaps a reason for this is that we’re only now beginning to understand the depth of sentience of species other than ourselves. Hence, we are now faced with the starkest of choices in coming to terms with our existence:

  1. Do we value human life and continuously evolving parameters for our wellbeing above that of any other species on earth? Or
  2. Do we actively manage our species in accordance with the belief that all organisms in their naturally fluctuating proportions are deserving of a life on this planet, on roughly the same terms we were all on before Homo sapiens passed the threshold of being able to alter the environment on a post-geological level?

"… alteration to the animals metabollic capacity and if the former turns out to be the case, we could be unknowingly facilitating the bio-accumulation of certain toxicants and compounds … "

This is such an absurdly artificial scenario that one has to wonder - is this the best problem that skeptics of gene manipulation can come up with? If yes, then the technology isn’t very dangerous … There is endless human activity that has incomparable higher effects on toxins in the environment than metabolism of animals - to such an extent that this line of thought does not make any sense.

Considering that there is zero gene flow between species, genetic modification is inherently far safer than any chemical intervention. The main problem remains the effects of exterminating a certain species and the ripple effect that this may have through ecosystems, but this is wholly independent of the method used.

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This is such an absurdly artificial scenario

Oh? How so? Have you any evidence to suggest that similar mechanisms do not or could not occur in the natural environment? I think its best to remember that absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence

There is endless human activity that has incomparable higher effects on toxins

So are you saying that any effects from CRISPR application in ecology are negligible at best? Could we not say that conventional human activity as well as CRISPR application are both things that we should be concerned of for our planet?

Considering that there is zero gene flow between species

Honestly, I find this to be an absurd statement. Do you mean to suggest that the genetic fitness of one species has no impact on the comparative success or failure of another? Lest we forget, sexual reproduction is not a complete barrier to the co-interaction of genotypes between different taxa

Monarch butterfly larvae feed off of milkweed, the toxic latex of which is synthesized by the animal to become a tool for its own defence against predators. Surely then, these butterflies would be significantly impacted by a gene drive attempt to lower the toxicity levels of this plant, no?

That is just 1 of many examples

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I agree that “bio-accumulation of certain toxicants and compounds” is not something that these technologies will lead to–so this isn’t one of the reasons to be concerned. There are reasons (e.g. extermination of a species from the ecosystem), just that this isn’t one of them as stated in exactly those words. But the idea that genetic traits (and phenotypes) could spread beyond the target species is a valid concern.

This article explores the issue in some detail. Genetically Engineering Wild Mice to Combat Lyme Disease: An Ecological Perspective

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Gene flow between species is actually pretty common. It’s generally in closely related species, but not always, and there are a variety of pathways it can happen.

One of the more interesting ways that horizontal gene flow between species takes place is via viruses. Around 8% of the coding DNA in humans has viral origin, and another 40% or so is repeated sequences that are also thought to have viral origins. Viruses can even facilitate gene transfer from species to species across the superkingdom level (eg. from bacteria to plants or animals, and other combinators).

I agree that, “facilitating the bio-accumulation of certain toxicants and compounds,” is a bit of a silly concern, but unexpected genetic effects in a populations and horizontal transfer of snippets of DNA that have unexpected impacts being spread to other species, or releases of novel hormones into areas with species sensitive to said hormones is something that deserves a bit more consideration and thought.

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I recently read an article about how gene drives are being developed to combat invasive species by messing with the natural sex ratio of the animal populations, which is an interesting idea, but I found no information of whatever this process can be stopped once it started. If the modified population stays in the intended region it shouldn’t cause much of an issue, but invasives kinda have a problem of not sticking around. If any of the modified organisms somehow (accidentally or maliciously) gets introduced back to their original territories can we stop the modified genes from working or is this just another human caused ecological catastrophe in the making?

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CRISPR is used in Arctic apples? Which don’t turn brown when sliced and left on the buffet all day. An essential way to feed the hungry. ?
Back in Google Plus days I remember a weird conversation with one of those CRISPR scientists - she said - I love apples but couldn’t eat. A whole. One. A few slices is enough.?!
https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/arctic-apples-fresh-new-take-genetic-engineering/

First target is shelf life. Second target is aesthetics. Thirdly we may consider whether the manipulated ‘food’ still has nutritional value.

At the end of the abstract for that paper, it actually says “has yet to be evaluated by professional, independant ecologists”

So what is the basis for declaring that the bio-accumulation example is “not something these technologies will lead to”? As far as I know, the effects of known bio-accumulation of microplastics through marine organisms have barely been researched, and yet who are we to suggest that such accumulation will not have an impact on the range of phenotypic traits expressable by individual populations or the species as a whole? Why would the same not apply to CRISPR which is, essentially, a tool for fast-tracking genetic adaptations in shorter generational periods?

@earthknight
See my comment above