The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What’s scarier? Tinkering with mosquito DNA, or malaria?

A protester takes part in a demonstration against agribusiness giant Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at the White House in 2013. (Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Two hundred years ago, Edward Jenner inoculated an 8-year-old with cowpox, and the world’s first “vaccine” was born.

We all know how the story ends. Vaccines gave way to one of the greatest achievements in human health: the eradication of smallpox. But Jenner’s work never received praise during his lifetime and instead met with harsh skepticism. Many doctors refrained to use the word “vaccination” when inoculating people for fear that the patient would refuse the treatment.

That’s the way science goes — there’s always an aversion to new technology. Today, researchers are preparing for public resistance to a project that could revolutionize the field of genetic engineering.

A few years ago, a team of scientists led by professors Austin Burt and Andrea Chrisanti at Imperial College London published a study detailing the steps needed to eradicate malaria through genetic modification.

[Scientists create a mutant mosquito that could help eradicate malaria]

At the time, the team was studying swarms of mosquitoes locked in small cube-shaped cages, engineered to glow in the dark with the help of fluorescent proteins. They then made a special mosquito with a gene that could break up that fluorescence and engineered it so that its genes would pass on to its offspring more aggressively than those of its mate.

The result? After a few generations, the cages got dimmer and dimmer. The fluorescence gene was eventually knocked out of the population. It’s a form of what’s called a “gene drive,” isolating a gene and making it “selfish” to appear more frequently.

Its success led to a tantalizing conclusion: If geneticists could isolate single traits in the genome of a single mosquito and engineer them, they could theoretically control the genes of the entire mosquito population.

Today, scientists are already designing mosquitoes that aren’t able to carry malaria and other experts say we’re only 10 to 15 years away from releasing them into the wild. By that time, the deadliest animal on the planet could be rendered harmless.

“It’s super exciting,” Burt said in an interview. “We’re doing a lot of good (to combat the disease), but the consensus seems to be that we’re not doing enough to eliminate malaria. There’s a desperate need for further intervention.”

Malaria is only the beginning. Geneticists have suggested other types of gene drives that could be implemented to solve the world’s problems. If we can design mosquitoes, we could eliminate invasive pests like the python in Florida, strengthen species threatened by global warming and improve world hunger by growing more abundant crops.

But the daydreaming is stunted by fears of unintended consequences and a disdain for “unnatural” human intervention. What happens if newly introduced genes end up having unexpected long-term effects on a species? Or on other species that it might cross-breed with? What are the chances of an unexpected mutation?

Without proper caution, some scientists warn, gene drives could deliver ecological disaster. Without the right consideration, we could unleash monsters.

[Killer robots? Superintelligence? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.]

“I accept that people get worried,” Chrisanti said. “When scientists do something that’s very revolutionary, it’s normal that it generates a lot of fear.”

One group of scientists published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this summer, suggesting that if we engineer invasive species to die off, there’s a distinct possibility of those faulty genes entering native groups of that species. Instead of preserving the natural populations of the a specific region, they argue, we may end up accidentally eliminating a species worldwide.

Advocates of the technology say, just as we are able to introduce new genes into a system, so too can we add “recall” genes to correct a population if anything gets out of hand.

Others remind us that we are years away from actually implementing the technology on a large scale. Science, they argue, happens incrementally and in regulated steps that mitigate risk. Engineered mosquito populations, for example, would require computer modeling, baseline studies in a lab, more baseline studies in the field — as well as strict adherence to environmental laws on the release of modified insects. Scientists will continue to work out the kinks of the technology — there’s too much potential for it to fall by the wayside due to potential problems.

Risks like these are at the heart of questions that scientists at the National Academy of the Sciences are carefully parsing out in workshops. The NAS, which invited scientists from around the world, is just gathering information at this point — but this is the start of a broader discussion on the ethical considerations of gene drives, such as how gene drives should be regulated or how the technology could impact developing countries.

But a common theme coming out of the discussions is that risks are only one head wind facing the technology. Another pressing problem lies in public perception.

Genetic modification is, of course, nothing new. A good chunk of what we eat is already “genetically modified” in some way, although our ability to actually edit genomes has only emerged in past couple of years. It’s especially become easier thanks to CRISPR, a three-year-old method that allows scientists to splice out segments of a genome and insert new DNA.

But the exciting news of genetics is often mixed in with headlines of so-called “designer babies” and of Chinese scientists genetically modifying human fetuses. For many, the idea of playing with the chemical identity of living beings, even non-human, poses ethical concerns: Are scientists playing God or risking the creation of a Frankenstein?

Even genetically modified foods face heavy skepticism, although there’s sound consensus in the science community that they are safe. Just last week, the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of a genetically modified salmon, despite protests from critics who disapproved of the “Frankenfish.”

Fears of the unnatural will certainly persist, but gene drive will change the conversation completely. That’s because there’s no “opt-out” feature in gene drive technology. People may have objections to genetically modified foods, but they don’t have to eat it. A few states even require companies to label the foods as GMOs to preserve that right.

But to implement social policies based on gene-drive technology would require a broad moral consensus on genetic modification. We would have to collectively affirm that society accepts editing the DNA of mosquitoes because we agree to value human life over our desire for “natural” mosquitoes.

And that extends to every form of gene drive. Do we value the preservation of native species over the preservation of natural genes? Do we value strengthening coral in the face of rising ocean acidity over the virtue of their original genetic identity?

“At the end of the day, it becomes a political issue.” Chrisanti said. “Do people really want it?”

We probably will eventually want gene drive, at least the versions that have potential to save lives and improve the economies of developing nations. In the long run, society tends to accept innovation that dramatically improves lives, regardless of the initial response. Despite recent spurts of “anti-vaxxer” news, for example, the resounding criticism of politicians who questioned — or even didn’t expressly support — vaccines verify that our society today is soundly in favor of the technology we once disdained.

That’s not to say we should be cavalier about gene drive’s potential risks and rewards. We should have a vigorous debate about its potential consequences. We shouldn’t use the technology until it has been perfected and thoroughly tested, which means that we probably won’t be using it any time soon.

But if, in the future, thousands of lives are saved and developing nations are vastly improved thanks to gene-drive interventions, will we view our aversion to modified organisms the same way we view the rejection of vaccines?

Read more:

Killer robots? Superintelligence? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Why there’s an urgent need for a moratorium on gene editing

British scientists seek to edit the genes of embryos; bioethicists warn of potential dangers

Do we love robots because we hate ourselves?

Why you shouldn’t know too much about your own genes