Friday, November 27, 2015

Mutant Medflies, GMO Mosquitoes

First, the good news: releasing genetically-modified medflies and mosquitoes may mean fewer crop failures; and fewer deaths from malaria.

Now, the not-so-good news: I'm pretty sure some folks won't think it's good news.
  1. Mutant Medflies
  2. Malaria-Resistant Mosquitoes

Learning — Sometimes the Hard Way

I suspect that Hubris, self-confidence above and beyond the call of reason, helps account for the occasional real-life analogs to fictional "mad scientists." (December 12, 2014)

As I've said before, often, I think folks whose attitude toward science resembles the ardent Mr. Squibbs — the bald chap in that cartoon — are sincere. I'm also quite sure they're wrong. (December 12, 2014; October 31, 2014)

I do not think the lesson of Auschwitz, Dachau, Tuskegee, and Willowbrook is that science is Satanic. It's that ethics apply to science, just like anything else we do. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2292-2295, 2415-2418)

We've been learning — sometimes the hard way — how to be careful with new science and technology.

In 1753, for example, Georg Wilhelm Richmann decided to see how an insulated rod interacts with a thunderstorm. Scientists still experiment with lightning: but from a safe distance, or inside something like a Faraday cage.

Radium, Thalidomide, and Using our Brains

In 1900, Otto Walkhoff learned why carrying a tube of radium in one's pocket is a bad idea. That led to effective radiation treatments: and, from 1913 to 1935, freewheeling research and quackery.

Meanwhile, folks were painting glow-in-the-dark watch faces: some 4,000 in the U.S. and Canada. The most famous — or infamous — case was when women working at a United States Radium Corporation factory had been told the radium paint was harmless.

The owners and scientists at U.S. Radium obviously knew the hazards of working with radium. Nearly a century later, America has different problems, and that's another topic. Topics.

Starting in the mid-1950s, thalidomide was sold as a "wonder drug" for insomnia, coughs, colds and headaches. About 2,000 dead children later, scientists were starting to do the sort of research that's now part of testing before new drugs are sold.

The lesson from these experiences isn't that science and new technology are bad. Learning about the universe, and using that knowledge to develop new technology, is part of being human. It's what we're supposed to do.

God gave us brains. Using them sensibly is up to us. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 154-159, 307, 1730, 2292-2295, 2415-2418)

Famines, Sumerians, and Making Sense

I remember the first Earth Day, back in 1970. Four decades and many fizzled doomsday predictions later, I still think environmental awareness makes sense — within reason. (July 5, 2015; June 15, 2014)

But I think remembering why we developed new technologies also makes sense.

Famine is a problem in some areas — not, I think, because we lack the technology to grow enough food for everyone; but because we don't get resources to folks who need them. Correcting this injustice is one of many unfinished tasks. (August 9, 2015; July 5, 2015; May 3, 2015)

One reason folks in Western civilization produce so much food is that we've developed and used increasingly effective pesticides.

Traditional pesticides like arsenic, mercury, and lead were being replaced by nicotine sulfate from tobacco leaves in the 17th century. In the 19th century we added pyrethrum from chrysanthemums, and rotenone from the roots of tropical vegetables; and more exotic compounds in the 20th.

We also learned why we need to be careful about what we dump into an ecosystem.

My guess is that we've used pesticides of some sort ever since someone started growing crops.

The first written record of pesticide use we've found so far is from Sumer, about 4,500 years ago. Documentation of any sort is a bit spotty that far back. The earliest cuneiform we know of is from sites like Jemdet Nasr, our name for a place near Kish, and that's yet another topic.

Sumerians dusted crops with sulfur, and some folks still do. Sulfur is a "green" pesticide, in the sense that it's an element with a long history: but so is arsenic. Neither is particularly good for humans: which is why it's a good pesticide.

The whole point of pest control is to keep other living critters from eating or spoiling food we're planning to eat. I don't see a problem with that, and I'll get back to the ethics of being human.

The Rig Veda, written a few centuries after the earliest Sumerian documents, mentions biopesticide: a new word for an old idea, controlling pests with plants or animals that prey on, or are poisonous for, the pests.

The last I heard, we still aren't sure exactly what biopesticide the Rig Veda mentioned. It might be a fungus: or something else. Whatever it was, a big problem with traditional biological pest controls is the scale of today's food needs.

We could, in principle, use agricultural tech from the 'good old days:' put up with the occasional famines; and either kill off the billions of 'extra' folks, or let them die of starvation.

That's not acceptable, on ethical1 grounds: and I'm pretty sure that the 'extra' people would object. Strenuously.

1. Mutant Medflies

(From Oxitec, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"Australia trial for GM fruit fly"
Paul Rincon, BBC News (November 24, 2015)

"Australia will carry out trials of a genetically modified insect to see if it can control a destructive crop pest.

"The engineered Mediterranean fruit flies possess a gene that prevents female flies from reaching adulthood.

"When released into the environment, they mate with wild members of the same species and pass on the gene to their offspring, which die before they can cause damage to crops.

"The flies have been produced by the British-based company Oxitec...."
I remember the 1981 'medfly crisis' in California. Being 'environmentally conscious' was a big deal then, too, so the California governor okayed ground-level malathion spraying. That didn't work. Medflies breed and move faster than spray crews could work.

Then helicopters sprayed nine counties with malathion: which didn't work, either.

After losing crops worth millions of dollars, with crops worth billions threatened, fleets of helicopters started nighttime spraying: and the California governor drank a glass of malathion to show it doesn't hurt humans.

Meanwhile, entomologists released sterile male medflies. Millions of them. That may have been what finally stopped the 1981 medfly outbreak.

Malathion: For External Use Only

Malathion is an organophosphate parasympathomimetic, which means that it's an ester of phosphoric acid that affect the parasympathomimetic nervous system: part of the autonomic nervous system.

That's the part of a critter's nervous system that handles involuntary functions: those critters that have nervous systems, that is.

Humans are opportunistic omnivores and large as animals go:2 so the California governor probably didn't suffer terribly serious ill effects from drinking malathion.

We're not as spectacularly unkillable as some critters, but I strongly suspect that we'll prove as durable as rats, cockroaches, and scorpions.3

That said, I wouldn't willingly drink malathion. It's not particularly toxic to humans, but our bodies metabolize it into malaoxon, which in a large enough dose gives us headaches, nausea, and several other unpleasant sensations.

A big enough dose of malathion will kill us. So would a whole lot of small doses, if we kept drinking the stuff: but that doesn't happen often. Folks can be daft, but we're generally not that daft.

Medfly Origins and Gene Splicing

Adult Mediterranean fruit flies, Ceratitis capitata, are about two-thirds the size of a housefly: 4 to 5 five millimeters, 1/6 to 1/5 inch, long. (Global Invasive Species Database)

Depending on where you read it, these critters started out in the Mediterranean area or Sub-Saharan Africa: which isn't quite the same place. Either way, they're one of the reasons countries have rules about importing and inspecting fruit.

Insecticides have come a long way since folks started using Flit, back in the 1920s. So has our understanding of why we have to be very careful about how we use them.

The big problem with pesticides is what I keep saying about life on Earth: our molecular machinery is highly modular. For example: Drosophilidae, a family of flies; zebrafish; and humans; all use the PAX6 gene to grow retinas. (March 6, 2015)

The good news is that we can patch code from bacteria into tobacco plants and potatoes: letting the plants produce their own pesticides. (February 6, 2015; January 9, 2015; December 26, 2014)

The not-so-good news is that chemicals that will kill insects aren't particularly good for us, either. That's why I think modifying medfly genes may be a good idea. I also think it's likely that some folks will see that the critters are "genetically modified," and jump on the nearest 'down with GMOs' bandwagon.
"...Oxitec male flies are released to mate with wild female flies. When they do, they pass on a 'self-limiting' gene which prevents female offspring from reaching adulthood.

"This prevents the females from stinging fruit crops, or reproducing, thus shrinking populations of the fly in the release area...."
(Paul Rincon, BBC News)
On the other hand, I'm quite certain that gene splicing isn't "safe," in the sense that bad things won't happen if we don't use our brains. Even some of our most basic tech, like fire, still gets troublesome on occasion. (December 5, 2014)

2. Malaria-Resistant Mosquitoes

(From Jim Gathany/CDC, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
("An Anopheles stephensi mosquito obtains a blood meal from a human host through its pointed proboscis...."
"Scientists create mosquito strain with malaria-blocking genes"
Will Dunham, Reuters (November 23, 2015)

"Scientists aiming to take the bite out of malaria have produced a strain of mosquitoes carrying genes that block its transmission, with the idea that they could breed with other members of their species in the wild and produce offspring that cannot spread the disease.

"The researchers said on Monday they used gene-editing, a genetic engineering technique in which DNA can be inserted, replaced or deleted from a genome, on a species called Anopheles stephensi that spreads malaria in urban India.

"They inserted DNA into the germ line, cells that pass on genes from generation to generation, of the species, creating mosquitoes with genes that prevent malaria transmission by producing malaria-blocking antibodies that are passed on to 99.5 percent of offspring...."
Malaria isn't always fatal, but it's a serious disease: affecting the lungs, brain, liver, and other major systems.

We get malaria when one of the four or five species of Plasmodium that cause malaria in humans gets past our body's outer defenses. Artemisinin-resistant malaria microbes showed up in southeast Asia. I talked about that in January. (January 23, 2015)

Scientists will probably find replacements for artemisinin: but malaria treatments wouldn't be needed if mosquitoes didn't carry the critters to new hosts. That's the goal of this research: malaria-resistant mosquitoes.

That makes more sense than it might seem. If malaria microbes can't survive in mosquitoes, mosquitoes can't carry the microbes to new hosts: and fewer folks get sick.

University of California-San Diego's Valentino Gantz said that genetically modified mosquitoes, released to mate with wild skeeters, would pass their tweaked genes on to the next generation.
"...'It can spread through a population with great efficiency, increasing from 1 percent to more than 99 percent in 10 generations, or about one season for mosquitoes,' University of California-San Diego biologist Valentino Gantz said...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
I put links to more resources about malaria and mosquitoes at the end of this post.4

Fear, Ethics, and Getting a Grip

Is ending the mosquito's role in spreading malaria ethical? Taking a broader view, should we be trying to cure disease at all?

Edmund Massey's views on disease, fear, and God, are among the reasons I am profoundly glad that the 'good old days' are behind us. (January 23, 2015)
"...The fear of disease is a happy restraint to men. If men were more healthy, 'tis a great chance they would be less righteous. Let the Atheist and the Scoffer inoculate. Their hope is in and for only this life. Let us bless God for the Afflictions He sends upon us, and grant us patience under them...."
("Against the Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation," Edmund Massey (1722))
In sharp contrast, there's Pope Pius VII's 1814 statement that vaccination is "a precious discovery which ought to be a new motive for human gratitude to Omnipotence." (February 12, 2014)

I'm a Catholic, so I think life and health are "precious gifts." Keeping ourselves healthy is, within reason, a good idea. So is healing folks who are ill, and caring for folks who are dying. (Catechism, 2278-2279, 2288-2289)

I also think that humans are animals: but we're not just animals. We're made "in the divine image:" with dominion over this world. (Genesis 1:27)

Our dominion isn't ownership. We're stewards, responsible for the creatures and resources of this world: for our reasoned use, and for future generations. (Catechism, 1951, 2415-2418, 2456)

I don't think 'interfering' with mosquito genes is wrong. We might discover practical issues: although I'm nowhere near as concerned about these mildly-modified mosquitoes as I was about 'mutant eucalyptus' trees, back in 2010.

ArborGen tweaked eucalyptus genes so the trees could endure freezing temperatures. The idea was to provide hardwood fiber for high-quality pulp and paper, from trees grown in the northern United States.

So far, that sounds like a good idea: but so did introducing rabbits to Australia, and that's yet again another topic. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (June 13, 2010))

More of my views on health, technology, and being human:

1 Pre-industrial agricultural technology came close to feeding everybody, except during famines: but that was when there weren't nearly as many folks around as there are now. I do not think there are "too many" people. I certainly do not think non-European countries should be "helped" by trimming their populations down to match the preferences of "civilized" folks.

I'm more concerned about countries like Japan, where folks aren't raising quite enough kids to take over as older generations die.

I've harangued about this, but not recently:
As a Catholic, I must think that human life is sacred: which means that I can't approve of genocide, among other things. (Catechism, 2258-2317)

As I keep saying, I'm expected to love God, love my neighbors, see everyone as my neighbor, and treat others as I'd like to be treated. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1789)

2 We can get by without meat, but by nature we're omnivorous: along with badgers, bears, coatis, hedgehogs, and chimps:
Although some animals, like elephants and whales, are bigger than we are; we're among the larger critters on Earth. (June 19, 2015)

3 We do get sick, and avoiding disease is a good idea. However, I think it's noteworthy that plagues like the Black Death didn't do more than slow us down. More of my take on being human:
4 Mosquitoes, malaria, and more:


Brigid said...

Extra word: "Traditional pesticides like as arsenic, mercury, and lead"

Is this comma necessary? "malaria treatments wouldn't be needed, if mosquitoes"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Got it! Thanks, Brigid.

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