The following is a discussion that bunnykitteh
and I got into on an old comment thread. It's gotten long and thought-provoking, so with his permission, I'm pulling it into a new post of its own to invite discussion.
I don't so much consider hybridization as a "GMO" issue, especially if it's the kind of thing that technically could happen in nature with no outside influence simply by two different plants growing close enough together, etc.
Do you believe that there's a difference between, say, corn produced by pollinating one strain of corn with another vs. corn produced by taking strain A and manipulating it to replace some of its genes with genes from strain B, such that the result is identical to the corn produced in the first example?
Why is this very low curb something that GMO apologists fall all over themselves to trip over?
Old school hybridization is CLEARLY different in important and fundamental ways from the kind of GMO manipulations that are done today.
What you seem to be asking is: are the important and fundamental differences a result of the techniques themselves?
I don't know, and that's irrelevant. There are important and fundamental differences that are a result of what's done, not how it's done. Genetic modification is used to do things that CAN'T be done in nature... in fact, that seems to be rather the point of it all :-)
The concern that seems to go ignored and unaddressed is the fact that once these changes are released into the wild, there is no containment and no "undo". This affects me and everyone else on the planet in ways that, frankly, I don't consent to and you have NO right to inflict on me.
Sadly, it's a question that I have to ask. Believe it or not, there are quite a lot of people who believe that of the two scenarios I depicted (and note that here I mean exactly these scenarios), the first is safe but the second is not -- despite the fact that the outcomes are identical. Simply put, some people are irrationally terrified of any genetic modification that doesn't happen in a field, and it's simply impossible for me to have a productive discussion with someone who's hampered by that kind of fear.
It appears that you're not, though, so we can have a productive discussion. :) Really, I'm sorry that I even had to ask; I think, though, that it's better to waste time with one question up-front rather than getting into an emotionally charged debate that would take up time and would ultimately be doomed to failure. I'm glad that's not the case here.
(I am still somewhat curious as to whether you would eat produce created through the second scenario I posited, but if you think it's an irrelevant question, then let's just move on, k?)
To briefly answer your implicit question: I'm actually very concerned about the "no containment / no undo" problem, and one of my biggest concerns, particularly with respect to the DIY movement, is that experiments must not be released into the wild without rigorous testing.
We've already seen, in the US, India, and elsewhere, that GMOs can and do have unanticipated effects on existing organisms. I'm furious, for instance, at Monsanto's attempts to sue US and Canadian farmers whose crops were pollinated by windborne pollen from GMO produce growing elsewhere. This is a sociopolitical chilling effect which must be crushed -- Monsanto has no right to accuse farmers of "gene theft" when those farmers had no intention of incorporating Monsanto's sequences into their crops. Now, that's a political issue, but it has bearing on your concern as well: I believe that farmers have every right to grow the crops which they want to grow, and if a farmer wants to grow crops which don't incorporate modified sequences, he should have that right. Here's a hypothetical for you: suppose that an organic farmer discovers that his corn has been pollinated with pollen from GMO crops, and as a result, his crops can no longer be certified organic. Should the farmer be able to sue Monsanto for lost revenue? I'm inclined to say yes, although in practice that would likely be a difficult case to win. The end result is basically the same as if Monsanto burned the farmer's fields, since the farmer's crop is no longer fit for sale, but I suspect a court case would hinge on whether the farmer could prove malicious intent or, more likely, negligence.
In fact, that's probably the best way of phrasing my outlook on the subject: I think it's negligent for bioengineers and biohackers to create synthetic organisms which have the potential to affect/contaminate (e.g., via hybridization/sexual reproduction, though certainly in other ways as well) parts of the biosphere for which they were not originally intended. This is a difficult problem to solve, but the onus is absolutely on us, the engineers, to figure out how to do that. You have the right to eat only what you want to eat, and to know what you're eating. You have the right to know what's in your environment, and to avoid organisms that you want to avoid.
(As a side note, the DIY movement is certainly not focused only on synthetic biology -- that's just what's grabbing headlines. One project that you might appreciate is Jason Morrison's BioWeatherMap
, an open-source effort to catalogue "local microbiospheres" -- in other words, what microorganisms are present in different areas -- and track the movement of different strains of bacteria, fungi, &c throughout the world. One of my hopes for the future is that projects like this will make it easier for us to be aware of the invisible aspects of our environment. Imagine a world where you could view not only the weather forecast, smog report, and pollen report for San Francisco, but also a bacteria and virus report! Now tie it in to GPS and add a sampling system to, say, your cellphone. This presupposes some pretty major advances in miniaturization, sampling and sequencing, &c, but I think the results would be really awesome.)
Anyway: My own work is certainly affected by the principles I outlined above, most obviously scurvy-gurt. (Let's first stipulate that scurvy-gurt will work at all. I don't know if it will.) If someone doesn't want to have scurvy-gurt in their system, preferring instead to get their vitamin C from citrus fruit and whatnot, I should respect that. There are a couple of ways I can do that. The simplest is to make the enzyme-producing bacterium dependent on some particular nutrient not normally found in the human body (but safe for humans to eat) in order to survive. There's already a dentist in Florida who's developed a synthetic-bacteria treatment for tooth decay which uses this principle: he's modified the mouth bacteria which produce enamel-damaging acids so that they no longer produce those acids, then tweaked them further so that they outcompete their acid-producing cousins. However, he's also made them dependent on an additional nutrient, which he puts in a mouthwash which patients who use this technique must then use in order to keep their new bacteria alive. If the patients don't use the mouthwash, the no-acid bacteria die, and their mouths will eventually be colonized by decay-generating bacteria again. It's actually a cute money-making technique for him, in the spirit of "give away the razors but sell the blades" -- he could give away the bacterial treatment for free, then sell the mouthwash in order to make a buck. And, in fact, that's probably what's motivated his decision. :P OTOH, it has the additional side effect of doing exactly what you want -- making sure that the bacteria don't escape the habitat they're placed in.
We could do something similar with scurvy-gurt, though that presents an ethical dilemma for me. I think it would be nothing short of reprehensible to offer a cure to a crippling and often fatal disease but effectively force people to buy a supplement for the rest of their lives. Really, that's back to square one, since in order to distribute this supplement, we'd need the same kind of supply chain we already don't have for distributing vitamin C tablets.
Well. I say that, though the real-world situation is slightly more complicated than I've just depicted it. The WHO report on scurvy that I read (which I can link for you if you want to read it) points out that scurvy is a major problem in refugee camps, despite the fact that aid packages include cereals supplemented with vitamin C. Why? In a word, culture. In the parts of the world that are having problems with scurvy, it's common to boil grains for much of the day -- and vitamin C breaks down after about half an hour of boiling. I'd really like to be able to develop a "fire-and-forget" solution -- and I won't lie, there's a part of me that thinks it's terribly racist for a person to say "I never want any GMOs to come anywhere near me, ever," when a synthetic-biology solution to a brutal, fatal disease could be saving the lives of brown people in remote countries, with the consequence that one day everyone in the world would have this synthetic organism living in their intestines cranking out an extra enzyme.
As a First World analogy, suppose someone were to develop a virophage (virus which attacks other viruses) which selectively attacked the AIDS virus, destroying it throughout the body of anyone infected with HIV. Since we're imagining, let's also make it immutable. (Impossible in practice, but since we're discussing a particular ethical question, let's just stipulate this to start.) Suppose further that this virophage also remained dormant in the host's system, ready to attack any new HIV which entered the system. This would imply that the virophage could also be transferred to other people (likely via fluid contact). Would it be immoral to create this virophage? To use it as an HIV treatment? If you had HIV, would you use it? If your partner had HIV and decided to use it, what would you do?
(FWIW: in practice, I think it might be possible to develop an HIV-destroying virophage. However, I think it would also be terribly hard to get it to remain in the body after the HIV infection was eradicated. So actually, HIV strikes me as a less dilemma-fraught example, because I don't see any practical way to make a spreadable virophage.)
Anyway, these are the kinds of ethical dilemmas I struggle with every single day: where is the balance between respecting people's freedom of choice and, simply put, stamping out pain and suffering in the world? And, thinking outside the box, is that a choice we must necessarily make? Is there a way to achieve both goals? I'd like for one to be found. I don't care whether I find it or whether someone else finds it, I just want an answer. So I hope that by having discussions like these, we can delve more deeply into the thorny social problems that synthetic biology presents than the discourse typically does, and in so doing, inspire someone to find those out-of-the-box solutions.