Thursday, February 10, 2005

Some more on the [ethical] problems of biotech

First, a couple of pointers to Slate articles about two of the most divisive issues in biotech: stem cell research and mucking with embryonic DNA: "The creepy solution to the stem-cell debate" and "The creature genetic engineers fear most". The first article especially gave me pause -- the notion of starting the growth of a human embryo but then mucking with it by turning off some genes essential for proper development so you basically end up with a totally twisted, well, "thing" of incompletely-formed organs [depending on how far you let it get] etc just seems wrong. On the flip side, arguably abortion is worse than this because you're terminating something that did have the potential for becoming a fully-formed embryo, and I support allowing abortions, so I should be OK with this too. I guess it's a question of how far you let the "broken" embryo develop ...

Second, I went to a seminar on Tuesday where Jef Boeke talked about the work his lab is doing at Johns Hopkins. They're working on something called something called "retrotransposons", which, for the purposes of this discussion, you can think of as segments of DNA that are present in large numbers in your genome and sometimes, just for the hell of it, "move" ie they cut themselves out of one position and insert themselves into another position in your genome. Now, if they happen to insert themselves into a functioning gene, that gene may get disrupted; if that disrupted gene happens to be in one of your egg/sperm cells, it could get passed on to your children who might then suffer the ill effects of having that gene disrupted. So, clearly, having these retrotransposons moving around a lot is a Bad Thing.

What Dr.Boeke's lab has done is take the most abundant retrotransposon in human beings and re-engineered it to be 200 times better at moving around. This was all in the context of figuring out how the thing worked, a fine goal in and of itself, but the end result definitely makes me go "Now, at what point did you start thinking this was a good idea ?". Boeke of course presented it as a positive, in that it would allow easier genetic modification of test animals like mice etc, which is true, but my initial reaction [and a few other people's] was to question the wisdom of doing something like this.

We're heading full steam for the Brave New World.


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