Creating new life to save endangered life Special

Posted Oct 25, 2017 by Les Horvitz
Can we design life? Should we try? And who gets to decide? Scientists don’t have all the answers. Maybe artists and designers should get in on the act, too.
Alexandra Daisy GInsberg
Alexandra Daisy GInsberg
Martin Craft
One of those artists is Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg who was invited to discuss her unorthodox research at The New Yorker’s annual Tech Fest earlier this month.
She says that she became intrigued with the notion of designing life after hearing from engineers who believed that they could do it better than biologists. But she was wading into treacherous waters. “There’s no consensus around these issues, most people aren’t equipped to address them,” she admitted, “especially in a country where so many people don’t even believe in evolution.”
Cutting and Pasting to Change Life
Ginsberg is particularly interested in a genetic technology known as Synthetic Biology or Synbio based on the idea that DNA can be manipulated much like software code. (She’s a contributor to the collection “Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature.” ). One of her more novel – and eye-popping -- experiments involves using synthesized DNA to diagnose illnesses by changing the color of people’s poop.
Thanks to a genetic technique called CRISPR ,it’s possible to identify, cut and replace DNA at specific locations in an organism. The implications, Ginsberg says, are staggering: not only can genes be transferred from one species to another, but genetic manipulation now holds the potential of eliminating species altogether or even creating new organisms. Inspired by the DIY software developers of an earlier generation, biohackers like Ginsberg are exploring some of these possibilities.
Which species would you like to get rid of? “CRISPR can eliminate genes in up to 99 percent of mosquitoes,” Ginsburg told TechFest attendees, because it can target the plasmodium which gives them the insects’ ability to carry deadly pathogens like malaria and the Zika virus. Scientists are also targeting genes of white-footed mice which can infect people with Lime disease. Given a choice, most people have no qualms about eliminating the mice if it means they don’t have to worry about being infected.
About 10,000 diseases in humans have been identified that are single gene diseases, making them vulnerable to editing tools like CRISPR, Ginsberg says. So what could be so wrong with eliminating mosquitoes or diseases? The problem is that we have no idea of the long-term consequences of tinkering with genes even if we do so with the best of intentions.
“Where do you draw the line? Not only don’t we know the answer, we don’t even know how to ask the questions.” Ginsburg cites the international outcry provoked when Chinese scientists modified the genomes in human embryos even though they were never going to come to term. A moratorium on such experiments didn’t last long. The U.S. Academy of Sciences acknowledges that there may be cases where such testing is valuable.
In 2015, for instance, scientists in China produced the country’s first “cancer-free baby,” using genetic manipulation to eliminate congenital eye cancer in a fetus.
Surprisingly, Synbio isn’t very well regulated. There isn’t even agreement how it should be. “Those experts who are being asked to determine how this testing will be governed have an intellectual and financial stake in it,” Ginsburg notes. But then who should be involved in making such sensitive, far-reaching decisions? There’s no consensus there, either.
Preserving Life by Creating New Life
Ginsberg has been mulling over another thorny problem: How far ahead should designers of life – scientists, biohackers, engineers and artists – be planning for? “Design is usually based on a fixed object. But in biology we have to think of what humans will be like in a hundred years.”
That assumes, of course, that humans will be around in a hundred years and if they are, that they’ll have a livable planet to inhabit.
What if synthetic biology could be used to help preserve the species from extinction? Ginsberg asks, raising a possibility that most of those in attendance probably never considered. For instance, Synbio could be used to create entirely new organisms that could withstand higher temperatures likely to occur as the planet continues to warm. Or it could be used to engineer existing organisms to protect species. Ginsberg cites as an example the manipulation of the genome of mushrooms to make them capable of releasing toxins that prevent pests or blight from attacking nearby trees.
Could such genetic modification be used to make nature ‘better’? Such massive geoengineering would upend conventions about conservation, she admits. And what do we mean by ‘better’ anyway?
“’Better’ has become a contemporary version of progress, shed of some of its philosophical baggage,” Ginsberg writes on her website “But better is not a universal good or a verified measure: it is imbued with politics and values. And better will not be delivered equally, if at all…. What might the ‘wilds’ look like in a synthetic biological future?”
But maybe a synthetic biological future is indeed better than no biological future at all. If species are being eliminated because of human intervention (that’s why some observers call it the Anthropocene) then we might need newly designed fungi, bacteria, invertebrates and mammals to serve as “ecological machines that fill the void left by vanished organisms, or offer novel protection against more harmful invasive species, diseases and pollution.”
To those skeptics and detractors who are repelled by the idea of ‘rewilding’ the planet with organisms we create in the lab, Ginsburg has a simple but compelling answer: “We’re already conducting massive geoengineering of the planet.” It’s just that maybe in the future we can do it more intelligently and far less destructively.