Home / General / Gene Drive Technology

Gene Drive Technology

Comments
/
/
/
630 Views

AKPYXB-Mosquito_2756123b

An interesting set of ethical questions here:

A revolutionary technology known as “gene drive,” which for the first time gives humans the power to alter or perhaps eliminate entire populations of organisms in the wild, has stirred both excitement and fear since scientists proposed a means to construct it two years ago.

Scientists dream of deploying gene drive, for example, to wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitoes that cause the deaths of 300,000 African children each year, or invasive rodents that damage island ecosystems. But some experts have warned that the technique could lead to unforeseen harm to the environment. Some scientists have called on the federal government to regulate it, and some environmental watchdogs have called for a moratorium.

On Wednesday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the premier advisory group for the federal government on scientific matters, endorsed continued research on the technology, concluding after nearly a yearlong study that while it poses risks, its possible benefits make it crucial to pursue. The group also set out a path to conducting what it called “carefully controlled field trials,” despite what some scientists say is the substantial risk of inadvertent release into the environment.

All I know as an environmental historian is that there is zero chance of unexpected consequences by humans deciding to just eliminate a species. None at all.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • potsherds

    Bed bugs.

    Gene drive sounds spectacular. Fund the fuck out of researching and developing it.

    • Dennis Orphen

      And then when it’s weaponized to kill undesirable people or their crops and livestock?

      • Ken

        Ugg find argument convincing. Will not research “sharp rock” technology.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Bed bugs are endogamous, so it wouldn’t work.

          Eta: was supposed to be a reply to postherds

      • Warren Terra

        You might not want to comment on technologies you don’t understand. Gene drive technologies could not be used to “kill undesirable people”, and while they could be used to wipe out “their crops and livestock” it turns out that these are the same species consumed by “desirable people”.

        • Dennis Orphen

          Okay, keep undesirable people from reproducing then? But, yes, I see your point.

          • Warren Terra

            Mind you, I’ve got a brilliant idea for a truly awful science fiction novel that would sell like hotcakes in the winger community, whereby evil Jihadi terrorists team up with evil Vegan terrorists and effete ivory tower academics to engineer a plague to wipe out pigs, preventing BBQ ribs and a major category of Haram food to demoralize and purify Christendom. Enter your square-jawed ex-Navy Seal Or Whatever who’s been teaching himself molecular biology part time someplace in the Bible Belt, ready to save the day …

            The saving grace is of course that the book could be truly egregious, its target audience isn’t going to care.

            • Gregor Sansa

              Prologue: Scientists get discarded in vitro embryos, insert gene drive in thousands of them, find surrogate mothers. Thousands of miscarriages, hundreds of deformed babies, two or three successful gene drive babies. Successful babies are sent to Bad Place.

              Chapter 1. Gene drive man falls in love.

              Chapter 5. Gene drive man has son.

              Chapter 7. Another son.

              Chapter 23. Grandson.

              Chapter 24. Three more grandsons.

              Chapter 300. Human race is now 54% male. Bad place is 78%

              Chapter 310. Gene drive immunity gene created, available through gene therapy.

            • Woodrowfan

              add some back cover blurbs praising it by the likes of Ann Coulter, Gingrich, etc and you’ve got a winner!!!

            • Hogan

              who’s been teaching himself molecular biology

              But not the kind with evolution.

              • Yes, this would be the major flaw with the book. Our Hero would have been home-schooled or (very possibly) sent to a Christian “school,” where he would have been educated with ACE textbooks. His knowledge of science will be laughably bad.

                Bombing the shit out of the infidels, that’s going to be his solution. Not sciencing the shit out them.

            • Ahuitzotl

              so you’re John Ringo?

  • E.Garth

    Eliminating the smallpox virus seems to have worked out well. And eliminating the guinea worm seems to be working out well. But those are extreme cases, nearly every other ecological modification has resulted in a long list of unintended consequences. Any ecological modification method that we use should be easy to stop, and generally be pretty easy to reverse. “Wonderful New Methods” are fine, but only when their effects are even easier to stop or even reverse than other approaches to ecological management.
    (Nearly every decision that humans make has ecological management aspects, even when we set areas aside and leave them alone.)

    • PhoenixRising

      Virus, parasite that lives in the human body, mosquito…one of these things is not like the others.

      I’m no environmental historian, I’m a Girl Scout who has taught thousands of girls and women the place of the mosquito in the ecosystem with a rhyming song…and gene drive is a terrifying idea.

      Loomis, you missed a GIF opportunity here. The Disney movie ‘Lilo and Stitch’ hinges on the plot device of Earth being used as a sanctuary for mosquitoes. It’s big fun and packs this same message.

      • Just a Rube

        Note that a lot of the potential targets are also not native to their current habitats (e.g. most of the malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the Americas are actually species native to Africa that were accidentally introduced by humans post-Columbus).

        So the ecosystem argument is at least somewhat more complex.

      • searcher

        It’s actually not so different as you might think at first glance.

        Only a handful of mosquito species preferentially feed on humans. One of the reasons eliminating them would have minimal impact is that other species (which don’t feed on humans) would move into the vacated niches and the species which feed on the mosquitoes will happily eat those instead.

        The alternative methods of mosquito control are things like “drain every wetland in a 50 mile radius” and “dump just *buckets* of pesticide just *everywhere*”.

        There’s a variety of viruses, bacteria, worms and insects which evolved specifically to feed on humans; fuck ’em.

        • xq

          Right. Eliminating a few mosquito species is of trivial impact compared to other human disturbances that are much harder to justify. Gene drive is a great deal in terms of bang for your buck.

        • Warren Terra

          There’s a variety of viruses, bacteria, worms and insects which evolved specifically to feed on humans; fuck ’em.

          This is probably going too far; see the Hygiene Hypothesis, if nothing else. But I’d not shed a tear for A. aegypti.

          • joel hanes

            I’d not shed a tear

            Smallpox and polio have few mourners [ they’re not quite dead yet ]

            I’d be happy to see the extinction of the Guinea worm.

            And if I could magically kill every Asian brown carp in the contiguous 48 states, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

        • wjts

          Only a handful of mosquito species preferentially feed on humans. One of the reasons eliminating them would have minimal impact is that other species (which don’t feed on humans) would move into the vacated niches and the species which feed on the mosquitoes will happily eat those instead.

          I’m not sure this scenario would necessarily have “minimal impact”. These other mosquito species that would fill the niches feed on other animals and can infect those animals with a range of diseases. So you might well end up with some bird or mammal species of local ecological or economic significance getting hit harder by mosquito-borne diseases causing a population crash causing more problems.

          • twbb

            You’d also have potential time lags; expanding into a niche is not an instantaneous action.

            • searcher

              To a certain degree, the other mosquito species are already in those niches.

              Mosquitoes don’t actually eat blood per se; they eat other crap (eg, nectar) and then their females drink blood to get the extra resources to lay eggs.

              Your typical stagnant pond or discarded tire may have a variety of mosquito species living in it, all competing for the resources they share. A. aegypti may have a competitive advantage (feeding on humans) because, holy shit, there are a lot of humans with a big bucket of blood each, and this competitive advantage will let them lay more eggs than their wildlife-feeding cousins and in turn consume the majority of the shared resources, causing the other mosquito populations to crash or subsist at a lower level.

              So it wouldn’t so much be “wipe out A. aegypti, wait for new mosquito species to evolve/move into vacated territory” as “wipe out A. aegypti, co-existing mosquito species flourish, returning to levels not seen since A. aegypti invaded their territory.”

        • rea

          There’s a variety of viruses, bacteria, worms and insects which evolved specifically to feed on humans

          And if we eliminate those, the whole planet would be overrun with humans, and then where would we be?

          • Warren Terra

            Infectious disease and parasites aren’t just a vicious method of population control, they’re possibly a counter-productive one. There is a strong case that endemic parasitic infection deepens or even causes the poverty of some third-world regions (such as sub-saharan Africa and regions of south or southeast Asia), and poverty-stricken humans tend to have larger families, because it’s necessary for subsistence agriculture and to compensate for disease and mortality. Though these large numbers of impoverished humans often lack the economic resources to pose a big ecological burden …

            • PhoenixRising

              Malaria and Zika are chiefly problems of human efficacy and development, not mortality. So yeah.

      • Warren Terra

        I’m sorry, you’re wrong. The technology used to wipe out guinea worm – basically, enthusiastic targeted use of broad-spectrum antihelminthics – was far more likely to yield unexpected ecological consequences than “gene drive” is. The reason people are serious about “gene drive” is that they’re actually pretty sure that if they target Aedes aegypti with gene drive they’ll only hit that one species, and nothing else – not even other mosquitos. Mosquitos are pretty hugely important to our ecosystem, but people who study these things think we would get along fine without A. aegypti, a species that has really carved out a niche for itself as a professional disease vector between humans.

        • potsherds

          So what about bed bugs? :)

          I’m unaware of what role they fulfill other than disgusting as fuck human pest that can be nearly impossible to get rid of and leave their shit where you sleep.
          Also, there are bat bugs. Not sure if any role bed bugs fill ecologically could be covered by those.

          • Gregor Sansa

            Gene drive wouldn’t work on bed bugs. Not enough genetic mixing.

        • Bill Murray

          It’s a good thing that people who study things aren’t ever wrong

        • PhoenixRising

          People who study which things? Eliminating species (on purpose, a topic mostly understood by biologists who track what humans do inadvertently in this area), or genetically modifying insects, or eradicating diseases that harm lots of humans?

          The problem you’re not acknowledging, to be very broad, is that those are 3 different kinds of experts.

          So while it’s possible that I’m wrong, I think the burden of proof is on scientists who understand the potential ramifications of niche collapse in increasingly fragmented habitats to handicap which birds, fish and mammals this is likely to cost and let ethical balancing proceed from there.

      • nixnutz

        I’m a Girl Scout who has taught thousands of girls and women the place of the mosquito in the ecosystem with a rhyming song…

        Thank you for sending me on a YouTube spiral of Jonathan Richman videos. Sincerely, thanks, there’s a lot more vintage performance footage than the last time I did that.

      • Quite Likely

        Sounds like the Girl Scouts are falling victim to the Just World Fallacy. There’s no reason to expect that mosquitoes that bite humans have an important role in the ecosystem (they are only 200 of the 3,000 mosquito species, which are of course just a small fraction of the bugs flying around). They are even an invasive species almost everywhere on the planet!

    • xq

      The largest ecological impact of eliminating malaria-causing mosquitos would likely be all the additional surviving people and the environmental damage they cause.

      • Pat

        What’s your field, xq? I remember once that you explained the hap map to another commenter.

        • xq

          Evolutionary genetics.

          • Ronan

            Then you might be the person who can answer this question(then again, perhaps not) what do you think of the claims that are being made in the media that we’re getting close to a “cure” for cancer through gene therapy? Hype or are we generally at a turning point?

            • xq

              I haven’t actually heard anyone make that claim. Is this people excited about CRISPR? It’s a convenient tool for gene editing, but that’s only one component of gene therapy. And cancer is a really hard problem. And success in treating cancer using gene therapy has been pretty limited so far, after decades of research. I don’t see any indication that we’re anywhere close to a cure for any cancer.

              I have no real expertise in this and some other people on this thread could probably give you a better answer.

              • Warren Terra

                I had a similar reaction – gene therapy isn’t even an obvious avenue for addressing cancer. I can imagine one case where it might make sense: fixing a predisposition to leukemia or similar problems – but that’s just because you can sample someone’s bone marrow, modify the hematopoetic stem cells, wipe out their remaining hematopoetic stem cells, and repopulate. Basically, it would be similar to current bone marrow transplant treatments, but using corrected autologous cells instead of a donor. Not obviously a terrible idea, and obvious enough I’m sure people are looking into it – but not generalizable to other cancers.

                • Ronan

                  I’m probably wrong in saying gene therapy . See link below

              • Gregor Sansa

                These days personalized immunotherapy against cancer is more promising than gene therapy. This may make 5% of cancers curable which would be awesome. Curing all cancer is nowhere on the horizon.

              • Ronan
                • Ronan
                • PhoenixRising

                  Immunotherapies are going to eradicate cancers.

                  TO the topic at hand, they’re a century into development and only coming to fruition now because of the politics of whose expertise reigns in oncology research. Virus guys couldn’t get arrested, for decades, even though basic research that would be impossible today showed that some patients could be durably cured using immune interventions in the 1890s.

                  Good short easy history in ‘A Series of Miracles and Catastrophes’.

                • ColBatGuano

                  As someone who works in the cancer immunotherapy field, I have to say that there is a long ways to go before these things eliminate cancer. Current therapies are not particularly good for solid tumors, it’s not clear how tumors will evolve to counteract the treatments and these things are hideously expensive to develop and used in commercial therapy.

                • Ronan

                  Is it as important a “paradigm shift” as these sorts of articles are implying? Leaving aside the claims of eliminating cancer, do you see it providing significant improvements in survival rates etc?

                • ColBatGuano

                  It’s more of a technological advancement than a paradigm shift. The ability of the immune system to eliminate some cancers has been known for decades. The problem has been figuring out how to target it. The newer treatments accomplish some of that, but I have a feeling that their effectiveness will not be 100% and that many of the responders might relapse given time. Also, adverse treatment effects are still a major problem.

                  They should provide significant benefits for a subset of cancer patients with no other options. Not so sure about treating people at earlier stages of the disease.

      • twbb

        The death rate from malaria is a rounding error on the world mortality statistics.

        • Warren Terra

          I don’t want to make this about Malaria in particular, mostly because I don’t know much about it, but when looking at third-world infectious diseases it would be a huge mistake to focus on death. The amount of malnourishment, educational problems, labor interruption, and other sources of impoverishment and developmental delays (as individuals and as societies) that can plausibly be attributed to infectious disease and parasites in the third world beggars belief – I’ve seen claims that curing common parasites would boost the mean body mass and the mean measured IQ in Africa by 10-20 percent, a simply enormous difference. And while I don’t know a lot about Malaria, I know it’s famous for causing bouts of incapacity, recurring over many years, at least as much for actual lethality.

          • timb

            this. It’s silly to think the only risk to humans from malaria is death

        • xq

          And the extinction of a couple of mosquito species is rounding error on human impacts on the environment.

        • Quite Likely

          Perhaps, but it’s still 600,000 people a year. That’s a lot of lives to save. It’s more than the average annual number of murders. And of course malaria is just one of many awful diseases these things spread.

          Would you really be unwilling to wipe out a species in exchange for no one ever being murdered again?

        • Lost Left Coaster

          Malaria is both deadly and a massive drag on public health and well-being in certain areas of the world.

        • The death rate from malaria is a rounding error on the world mortality statistics.

          Aside from being horribly callous given the absolute numbers, it’s also false in low income countries where it’s the 6 leading cause of death (35 per 100k, vs. the top which is lower resp. infections at 95 per 100k).

          Also:

          Q: What are the main differences between rich and poor countries with respect to causes of death?
          In high-income countries, 7 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older. People predominantly die of chronic diseases: cardiovascular diseases, cancers, dementia, chronic obstructive lung disease or diabetes. Lower respiratory infections remain the only leading infectious cause of death. Only 1 in every 100 deaths is among children under 15 years.

          In low-income countries, nearly 4 in every 10 deaths are among children under 15 years, and only 2 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older. People predominantly die of infectious diseases: lower respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, diarrhoeal diseases, malaria and tuberculosis collectively account for almost one third of all deaths in these countries. Complications of childbirth due to prematurity, and birth asphyxia and birth trauma are among the leading causes of death, claiming the lives of many newborns and infants.

          The impact in terms of years lost is higher than the death rate states, and there’s the negative effects on survivors as well.

          • Just to drive this home:

            The WHO estimates that in 2010 there were 219 million cases of malaria resulting in 660,000 deaths.[3][111] Others have estimated the number of cases at between 350 and 550 million for falciparum malaria[112] and deaths in 2010 at 1.24 million[113] up from 1.0 million deaths in 1990.[114] The majority of cases (65%) occur in children under 15 years old.[113] About 125 million pregnant women are at risk of infection each year; in Sub-Saharan Africa, maternal malaria is associated with up to 200,000 estimated infant deaths yearly.[18] There are about 10,000 malaria cases per year in Western Europe, and 1300–1500 in the United States.[14] About 900 people died from the disease in Europe between 1993 and 2003.[57] Both the global incidence of disease and resulting mortality have declined in recent years. According to the WHO and UNICEF, deaths attributable to malaria in 2015 were reduced by 60%[65] from a 2000 estimate of 985,000, largely due to the widespread use of insecticide-treated nets and artemisinin-based combination therapies.[62] In 2012, there were 207 million cases of malaria. That year, the disease is estimated to have killed between 473,000 and 789,000 people, many of whom were children in Africa.[1] Efforts at decreasing the disease in Africa since the turn of millennium have been partially effective, with rates of the disease dropping by an estimated forty percent on the continent.[115]

            Not a fucking rounding error.

    • Gene drive could be used, not to eliminate mosquitoes, but to make them inhospitable to the malaria parasite (or Zika, or Dengue). So we’d be indirectly eliminating the parasite, not the mosquito. That’s more akin to eradicating smallpox or the Guinea worm. Yes, there are huge questions about this and it requires a lot of thought, debate, and regulation, but there are certainly imaginable circumstances in which most people would want to try it.

    • sean_p

      Rather than programming the species to self-destruct (which has a bunch of easily foreseeable negative consequences), couldn’t you just program Anopheles spp. to be incapable of spreading malaria? Then they could still fulfill the remainder of their ecological functions without spreading malaria.

      I don’t think this is too far-fetched, as the mechanisms by which this mosquito genus fosters malaria development are pretty well known. Seems like a doable thing, with a lot less (but non-zero) risk.

      • xq

        It depends what risk you’re concerned about. I think the ecological risks are pretty small; a few lost species won’t destroy an ecosystem that contains many other species performing similar functions. If you’re worried about the gene spreading between species, it’s probably better to quickly drive the species to extinction (perhaps local extinction) than to allow the gene to evolve within the species.

        • ColBatGuano

          I don’t think there is anything like “local” extinction these days.

  • Hallen

    Do the possible unexpected consequences of killing malaria-carrying mosquitos outweigh the expected consequences of allowing them to persist?

    But either way, “killing insects” does not involve any “ethical issues.” Only practical ones.

    • PhoenixRising

      What do you think birds and fish in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia eat?

      • SP

        There are a number of mosquito species in those regions, only one of which is a vector. It’s expected that the others would fill the A. aegypti spot in the food chain. Also, the species has expanded to a number of regions where it’s not native, due to climate change, so you wouldn’t expect much of an impact there. Of course the issue is that you can’t really limit this technology to just those regions.
        I’m tangentially involved in some of this research (improving some of the underlying methods involved in the application.)

        • PhoenixRising

          Of course the issue is that you can’t really limit this technology to just those regions.

          Yes, that is the issue. Well spotted.

          Do you think that eliminating A. aeygtpi and letting nature fill that hole might have unexpected or underappreciated outcomes?

          Or have you never read a science fiction novel? Those are the only options I can identify.

          • xq

            Science fiction novels are not actually a good way to evaluate the risks and benefits of new technologies.

          • vic rattlehead

            Maybe it’s time to face the fact that you’re punching above your weight here.

            • PhoenixRising

              Maybe expertise in genetic manipulation isn’t the same as expertise in ecosystems and/or biology.

              If humans had ever made an attempt to eradicate a species (deliberately) that came off as planned, with no unexpected results, then I’d be the one displaying hubris here.

              That’s…not the situation.

              • Warren Terra

                Maybe expertise in genetic manipulation isn’t the same as expertise in ecosystems and/or biology.

                It’s frankly offensive that you act as if the people developing the molecular biology techniques are operating in a vacuum and not closely collaborating with ecologists and organismal biologists to carefully consider what and how they can do to intervene in the natural world.

                If humans had ever made an attempt to eradicate a species (deliberately) that came off as planned, with no unexpected results, then I’d be the one displaying hubris here.

                I’d cite smallpox and say this depends on your definition of “species”, but there are a bunch of other examples. There’s Guinea Worm. There are other parasitic nematodes for which intervention is at least theoretically promising.

                And at the other end of the scale: in Europe and to a somewhat lesser extent large parts of North America large carnivores (bears, wolves, big cats) were deliberately eradicated for the safety and the economic prosperity of the people living and herding there; there have been consequences, but not disastrous ones.

                • It’s frankly offensive

                  And just dumb.

                • PhoenixRising

                  Well, I have quite a bit of exposure to how the collaboration between microbiology (in another specialty) and ecology experts actually works on the ground vs in the lab, and I think you’re overselling ‘careful consideration’ and ‘collaboration’ as practiced–by a lot.

                  The assumption that I’m stupid and have offended someone’s pride by pointing out that humans are really, really bad at prognosticating about events outside their limited expertise, and all expertise is limited, is…interesting.

                  I’m not assuming that those meetings aren’t happening or asserting that the people in them aren’t the smartest experts with good intent; I’m reminding you of a fact that you are really uncomfortable acknowledging: Something that has never happened on purpose (humans eradicate a species deliberately and nothing unexpected happens as a result) isn’t going to happen here either.

                  We just aren’t that much smarter than our ancestors were. They thought they were consulting the right people and making obviously ethical choices too. What are the chances that we’ve reached that pinnacle?

                  But if you feel less vulnerable attacking everyone who points that out by assuming that they’re ignorant, Luddite or using the naturalistic fallacy in their reasoning, please proceed.

                • Warren Terra

                  Now you’re shifting your ground. Previously you disdained molecular biologists, because they weren’t ecologists; now you’re asserting that ecologists aren’t worthy experts, aren’t effective in their knowledge or their advocacy. It’s conceivable you’re right, but that doesn’t get you out of your attack on molecular biologists.

                • PhoenixRising

                  I’m sorry you feel attacked–or that someone is being attacked.

                  However, the facts are simple:
                  -This is a problem that crosses scientific arenas, in practice.
                  -Collaboration among lab and field, all of the humans involved having been awarded grants because they’re the smartest, is subject to human dynamics.
                  -Worse, there is objectively information these experts cannot have, because we don’t know it yet, because it can’t be predicted with confidence.

                  The odds that nothing unexpected and everything predicted come from this are long, not because anyone is stupid or has mad scientist bad intent…because the people are people.

                  Sorry I hurt your feels.

        • alex284

          Also, the species has expanded to a number of regions where it’s not native

          And that’s an understatement.

          Here’s a map
          of Ae aegypti’s distribution today. It’s believed to be from a region of sub-saharan africa.

          If eliminating species is such an awful thing because of the balance of ecosystems, introducing foreign species has to be pretty bad too. And that’s why that map is so colorful.

          • PhoenixRising

            And you think there is no ethical distinction between something our pirate ancestors did in ignorance, as a byproduct of other tragedies resulting from the Columbian blending of species, and something we would do on purpose–with the justification that we found a really neat toy to assault a virus that just happens to work on the carrier species rather than its microbiotic load?

            Yeah.

            • Warren Terra

              a really neat toy to assault a virus that just happens to work on the carrier species rather than its microbiotic load?

              Going after viruses is hard, and A. aegypti is particularly adapted to be a major vector for multiple human diseases, both viral and not.

              • PhoenixRising

                Yes, malaria and Zika are bad. And yes, the reason we still have virii in the field is that they reproduce in ways we can’t attack as easily as we can A. aegypti. This is a tough problem.

                There may be competing human health and development interests in maintaining the ecosystems in which it lives, though. And we don’t have reliable data or a set of odds about the possibilities, which creates an ethical problem.

                Is there some reason you think everyone who disagrees with you is having an attack of idiocy?

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Is there some reason you think everyone who disagrees with you is having an attack of idiocy?

                  Forget it, Jake. It’s the internet.

                • Warren Terra

                  I’ll admit it didn’t help when you started by stating your position was that as a girl scout and instructor of girl scouts you recognized the importance of mosquitoes, writ large, to the ecosystem, expressed as a reason to be skeptical of the proposal, thereby completely missing the point of why people are proposing to target A. aegypti specifically rather than mosquitoes (or insecticide-susceptible organisms) generally.

                • PhoenixRising

                  I like that you’re owning up to the mental map you used there: Girls who understate their knowledge of a complex issue probably need to be informed that it’s complex!

                  That is a rare quality in a person, and a praiseworthy one. Sincerely: well struck.

                • Warren Terra

                  Your cheap shot is entirely predictable: the word “girl” is entirely irrelevant. The word “scout” rather more so – you were telling a sympathetic story that made no claims to possessing any significant information on the subject. And, yes, this doesn’t help your argument, especially if the argument you are making happens to completely miss the point (again: the importance of mosquitoes to the ecosystem is not an argument against wiping out one species of mosquito, if the technology to do so is real).

                  You can portray this as “understating their knowledge of a complex issue” if you want, but (1) to gender that understating, and then impute sexism, is a base tactic suggestive of a complete lack of sincerity; and (2) what constructive purpose could “understating their knowledge” serve? You seem to be talking about this practice as if it were worthy. It is at best whimsical, at worst dishonest. What did you hope would come of it?

                  Throughout these threads you’ve consistently sneered imputations of idiocy and ignorance, now of sexism, and you’ve consistently shifted your ground when challenged on any particular issue. But, yeah, I’m sure it’s other people that are the problem.

      • Quite Likely

        Tons of things besides the small fraction of mosquito species that bite humans, that’s for sure.

    • Driving an insect to extinction holds no ethical issues? Why?

      • Philip

        Because insects don’t have rights, any more than smallpox viruses do?

        In this case the *practical* considerations are “this would be environmental disaster,” so it’s still a terrible idea.

      • AMK

        Because it’s not sentient. You can’t have ethics without sentience.

        • Who decides sentience?

          • busker type

            there’s no reason why it’s more immoral to drive a lion or elephant to extinction than a mosquito, but you will Never Convince people of that fact.

            …now let me tell you my thoughts about sexual abuse and farm animals…

          • AMK

            There’s probably a long answer involving studies on the psychology of animals and tests that demonstrate degrees of self-awareness or receptivity to pain….although that might not even be relevant if the “gene drive” technique just creates a generation of sterile bugs, rather than “killing” them. But the short answer is that we do, because we’re the most sentient species around.

            • alex284

              If we’re going to start arguing that ae aegypti is sentient, I see no reason to stop there. What about small pox viruses? Fungal infections? Clouds?

              Mosquitoes show no signs of sentience. They don’t have nerves that signal pain. They don’t even react to limbs being torn off.

              I’ve made this argument before and usually get a “what if they have different structures for experiencing pain and the way they experience sentience is very different from us?” to which I respond: that argument applies equally to mosquitoes and clouds. Prove that a cloud doesn’t feel pain.

          • vic rattlehead

            This is ridiculous. Even Peter Singer would guffaw at this.

        • Origami Isopod

          It’s not a question of whether the species is sentient or not. It’s a question of what we don’t know about that insect’s place in the food chain. And what kind of precedent it sets.

          • AMK

            Right. But that’s not really “ethics,” is it? It’s a question of “is this a good idea? Are we absolutely sure there won’t be ecological blowback on a sell-arms-to-the-mujahideen scale?

            • vic rattlehead

              Well to the extent it harms sentient beings I suppose it can be an ethical question. But the mosquito killing qua mosquito killing? That’s like a dumbass right wing parody of Peter Singer.

            • Hallen

              That’s what I meant, yes.

              Fwiw, I’m a vegetarian. I can very easily draw a distinction between arthropods (virtually no sentience, virtually no sapience*) and chordates (almost all have an appreciable level of sentience, and a small fraction, but also a overrepresented fraction amongst human prey animals, have an appreciable level of sapience).

              Mosquitos? There is not an ethical/moral dimension to their demise, which is why I don’t fret when I smash one, and neither does anybody on Earth, perhaps outside of a few diehard Jains.

              (As for the practical matter, killing all of them might be very bad. It merits study by experts. It does not necessarily need heavy input from laypeople, especially since laypeople brought us such fun opinions as “vaccines cause autism” and “GMOs are inherently evil for some reason.”)

              • Hallen

                (Though the first is a lot more dangerous/crazy than the second, I guess. This opinion has been brought to you by a layperson.)

              • sean_p

                Can we acknowledge that “smashing one” and “driving the entire species to extinction” are not the same thing?

            • UserGoogol

              Ethics is asking whether something is a good idea, just with an emphasis on “what exactly do we mean by good.” Some subjects get into more contentious areas of goodness is while others can focus more on straightforward practical reasoning, but this is a difference of degree, not kind.

              • Quite Likely

                That’s the point here: it’s a question of how to achieve the greatest good, not what the good is.

        • This is…silly.

          There are potential ethical issues in hitting a rock with a sledgehammer. (For example, if the rock belongs to someone else.) Just because the *direct* object of the action is not sentient, doesn’t mean that there is no ethical considerations with respect to that action.

          Indeed, one could easily argue that *not* eliminating the mosquito is unethical (for the amount of likely harm resulting from leaving them in place).

          There are ethical systems that value biodiversity. Etc.

          I personally think that once we have a reasonable model of the ecological consequences and a good regulatory framework, it’s pretty straightforward. One question will be the amount of certainty and the downside risk.

          • Linnaeus

            The NAS report referenced in the linked article also notes that there are ethical questions to consider.

      • searcher

        I think the question is better posed the other way, “What are the ethical issues with exterminating an entire insect species?”

        Otherwise I don’t know what else to say beyond “I have chosen not to value the species A. aegypti ethically”. All human life: yes. Life on Earth: yes. All life on Earth: no. Fetuses: sometimes. The planet Mercury: no.

    • LeeEsq

      Than somebody decides to turn gene drive on humans. Thats when the real fun begins.

      • SP

        Humans don’t reproduce fast enough for that to really work. You might be able to make them extinct in a thousand years or so but we’re doing just fine going down that path with other technologies.

        • Assuming mates are chosen at random (which they certainly aren’t, in humans) it’d take 13 generations to affect more than half of the population and 15 generations to reach 99%.

          Also, a requirement of gene drive would seem to be that the affected individuals can still successfully reproduce — so not only would it take centuries, but society at large would have to remain completely ignorant of it.

          • Marek

            So… you’re saying they’ve already done it?

      • Warren Terra

        Sounds scary unless you know what “gene drive” means. Then saying things like this just makes you sound ignorant.

        Technology an be misused, consciously or through ignorance. The knowledge that makes gene drive possible might even be used against humans (by engineering a lethal influenza, for example, something people were actually doing a couple of years ago, albeit they managed to prevent any release and it was lethal against rodents). But, no, gene drive is not something anyone would use against humans, no matter how cartoonishly evil they might be – it’s just not a suitable tool for the job.

        • vic rattlehead

          Who knew that science in the real world functions differently than in a schlocky Hollywood movie.

  • LeeEsq

    Interestingly enough, Slate advocated eliminating all mosquitos when the Zika outbreak started. This is most likely a bad idea. I really don’t know how to stop it. We all make fun of the idea of Buckley’s conservative break thesis because of the hypocrisy of it all but humans do have a history of going through ideas damn the consequences. Trying to get humans to stop implementing mad and bad ideas before thinking about the consequences never worked. We can’t even agree on what is a mad and bad idea.

    • Warren Terra

      If Slate really published someone advocating “eliminating all mosquitoes” they’re idiots too lazy to contact literally anyone who knows anything. This has been discussed for decades, and it’s common knowledge that mosquitoes are a hugely important part of the ecosystem, both as food and as pollenators. This is precisely why the debate is not about carpet-bombing with insecticide, but instead about developing technologies to go after individual, pernicious, theoretically dispensible species of mosquito.

      • theoretically dispensible species of mosquito

        I have nothing substantive to add to this discussion, I just want to report that I read that as “theocratically dispensible”.

      • Quite Likely

        The Slate article was only about the kinds of mosquitoes that bite humans, which are apparently a fairly small fraction of the total and are not particularly ecologically important.

  • AMK

    Are Republicans a species?

    • Cheerful

      Eliminationist rhetoric on conservative blogs depresses me, and there’s really no call for it here either.

      • busker type

        Seconded

    • Homo Ignoramus

    • Dennis Orphen

      Human. Very, very human.

  • Pat

    It’s a really pretty picture of a mosquito, Erik. Love the way the omnatidia shine.

  • petesh

    Rather than make my own arguments, or quote allies in the environmental movement, let me quote one of the scientists who actually developed gene drive technology — and, to his credit, simultaneously with the first published paper, in 2014, co-authored a call for debate and regulation that was published in Science:

    “There is a nontrivial chance that [the genes] will spread from a single organism released into a wild population into most or all members of the local population — and very possibly into every population of the target species around the globe,” said Kevin Esvelt, an MIT Media Lab professor who has studied gene drives in yeast. “This makes field trials of [current gene] drives unwise.”

    Note also that most of the discussion is about applying this technology in developing nations, which raises the ethical stakes considerable since many of the do not have the regulatory structures or spare finances to deal with any such trial. Oh, and they could be used as bioweapons too.

    • Kevin Esvelt, an MIT Media Lab professor who has studied gene drives in yeast

      The Media Lab seems to have branched out into new niches while I wasn’t looking…

  • Ken

    Is there some reason the technology can’t be used against the malaria parasite, so we can leave the mosquitoes alone?

    • dr. fancypants

      The malaria parasite doesn’t reproduce sexually.

      • Linnaeus

        Malarial parasites have both an asexual and sexual stage in their life cycles. See here.

        • dr. fancypants

          Oh shit, I stand corrected. Very cool.

          • Linnaeus

            That said, it may not matter all that much with respect to the applications of gene drive technology.

  • Sebastian_h

    We should eliminate the gene that causes hubris.

    • alex284

      How about the gene that causes privilege? Because I’m seeing a lot of that on this thread – “we” can’t take the risk of eliminating ae aegypti, but then “we” are not the people that ae aegypti is killing. For us it’s an abstract game, for other people it’s a matter of life and death.

      Is it any wonder that people here are giving a lot more thought to the unlikely sentience of one species of mosquito than they are to the known sentience of the black and brown people killed by that bug?

      • twbb

        Assigning ethical value to a choice does not mean that you are making that choice.

      • Quite Likely

        Excellent point. None of the people arguing against this are much risk of contracting malaria. I’m glad people are reflexively concerned about the environment, but the most likely minor ecological consequences of wiping out a few mosquito species are just so incredibly insignificant compared to the horror of 600,000 people dying every year from malaria alone.

        If you could prevent the Holocaust by wiping out a random insect species, I say you’re a monster if you don’t. And I don’t see how the current situation is any different.

        • sean_p

          None of the people for it will be affected by massive knock-on ecosystem effects, either. So the privilege argument cuts both ways.

  • Brett

    Anthony James, a mosquito researcher at the University of California, Irvine, who is among those advocating the use of gene drive to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the Zika virus, called the report “reasonable.’’

    If the mosquito researcher thinks that eliminating one breed of mosquitos would be tolerable in terms of ecological impact, then I’m inclined to believe him.

    • wjts

      He’s a molecular biologist who works on mosquitoes. I’d trust his pronouncements on the ecological impact of eliminating a mosquito species only slightly more than I’d trust an ecologist’s pronouncements about the molecular biology of mosquitoes.

      • yenwoda

        Wasn’t A. aegypti almost wiped out in the ’70s in the Americas before making a big comeback? I say go back and finish the job.

        • PhoenixRising

          Since nothing about the ecology of the Americas has changed in the meantime(1), this isn’t a new ethical decision, and all the ethical decisions made by multiple states in the Americas in the 1960s were focused on priorities we all agree to today(2), sounds logical.

          (1) Factually wrong
          (2) Also factually wrong

  • addicted44

    What I find problematic is the tendency to make these assessments on the basis of the most plausible scenario. However, when we are discussing technologies with world destroying capabilities, such as nuclear energy, genetic engineering, or geoengineering, I think the assessments should be based on assuming that the worst case scenario will happen, and then only proceeding with the technology if we determine ways to mitigate the worst case scenarios.

    The problem is that no matter how low the probability of the worst case scenario, when the impact is so massive, the expected damage spikes significantly. And the recent financial crash should have taught us that we are really bad at estimating the likelihood of black swan events.

    • And the recent financial crash should have taught us that we are really bad at estimating the likelihood of black swan events.

      ‘Sokay, we’ll test-drive the technology on black swans first!

    • njorl

      Should we also base our policies on an expectation of the worst case scenarios for inaction?

      • petesh

        Proponents of the technology are happily fixating on this particular mosquito right now because they are piggybacking on the publicity about Zika — nothing wrong with that, and actually they were there first; it was the chosen example in 2014. George Church (a co-author with Esvelt on the key papers) has also talked about using gene drive to eliminate exotic carp from the Great Lakes. Weeds that have evolved resistance to Roundup have also been mentioned as targets. Exotic mussels, too, IIRC. My point is that focusing on A. aegypti is inadequate: it’s probably the best-case example, but we should also be considering others — not only the worst cases but also those in between.

  • ChrisS

    Mosquitoes, black flies, emerald ash borers please.

    Who do I send my money to?

  • njorl

    It’s ridiculous to become paralyzed with fear about intentionally exterminating a single species when we unintentionally exterminate about 3 species per day unintentionally.

    • Gregor Sansa

      +3/day.

    • Stag Party Palin

      And although a good ethics discussion is fine, why has nobody (I think I read the whole thread) said that gene drive implementation is going to happen, regardless of rules and/or laws? Within a very short time the tools to do this are going to be cheap and widespread. How about building a bank of species DNA so that *when* something gets wiped out we can bring it back?

      • petesh

        Gene banking is indeed happening, but there are more issues with “de-extinction” so maybe we shouldn’t get distracted by that on this thread!

      • Gregor Sansa

        “An Oryx and Crake dystopia is our future anyway, so why worry about a few little mosquitos”?

        I support exploring use of gene drives to drive the worst 2 mosquito species to extinction. Also invasive pests threatening entire forests of trees. But the idea that CRISPR (not just gene drives) will soon be cheap and ubiquitous is utterly fucking terrifying. The nightmare scenarios are if anything scarier (though arguably less probable) than nuclear war or runaway climate change.

  • Peter VE

    We’ve been engaged in a two century long experiment on the biosphere already. Less rather than more is probably a good starting point.
    There’s been a long ongoing discussion over at The Archdruid Report about how “…progress has become the enemy of prosperity.”

  • Hogan

    Over twelve hours and no one has posted this? Discipline’s getting pretty slack around here.

    QUIMBY
    For decimating our pigeon population, and making Springfield a less oppressive place to while away our worthless lives, I present you with this scented candle.

    SKINNER
    Well, I was wrong. The lizards are a godsend.

    LISA
    But isn’t that a bit short-sighted? What happens when we’re overrun by lizards?

    SKINNER
    No problem. We simply unleash wave after wave of Chinese needle snakes. They’ll wipe out the lizards.

    LISA
    But aren’t the snakes even worse?

    SKINNER
    Yes, but we’re prepared for that. We’ve lined up a fabulous type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat.

    LISA
    But then we’re stuck with gorillas!

    SKINNER
    No, that’s the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.

  • JonH

    Couldn’t they use the technique on malaria instead of the mosquitos?

    Or both: alter the mosquitos to be compatible only with a less harmful version of malaria.

It is main inner container footer text