Tag Archives: biotechnology

Fixing the Earth: De-Extinction

Woolly Mammoth. image from wikipedia

Is extinction forever? Efforts are under way to use gene editing and other tools of biotechnology to “recreate” extinct species such as the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon. Could such “de-extinction” initiatives aid conservation by reviving species lost to habitat destruction and climate change?…. These are some of the questions addressed in Recreating the Wild: De-extinction, Technology, and the Ethics of Conservation, a new special report of the Hastings Center Report.

Advances in biology have revealed the ways the environment influences species’ genomes. Even if scientists could produce creatures with DNA identical to that of extinct species, different environmental pressures would alter their genomes in novel ways, raising the possibility that those creatures would differ from the extinct species…

Many scientists believe that although the maintenance of biodiversity benefits ecosystems, changes to the environment could make the reintroduction of extinct species difficult—possibly even ecologically disruptive. …Several commentators in the report raise the concern that the notion that extinct species might be “brought back” could weaken efforts to prevent extinctions. “By proposing that we can revive species through modern technology, we give the impression that species are ‘throwaway’ items,” write Robert DeSalle, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, and George Amato, director of the conservation genomics program at the institute.

Excerpt from Recreating the wild: De-extinction, technology, and the ethics of conservation, https://phys.org/news/, Aug. 2017

Genome Integrity and the Unsafe Genes

DARPA created the Safe Genes program to gain a fundamental understanding of how gene editing technologies function; devise means to safely, responsibly, and predictably harness them for beneficial ends; and address potential health and security concerns related to their accidental or intentional misuse. Today, DARPA announced awards to seven teams that will pursue that mission, led by: The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Harvard Medical School; Massachusetts General Hospital; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; North Carolina State University; University of California, Berkeley; and University of California, Riverside. DARPA plans to invest $65 million in Safe Genes over the next four years as these teams work to collect empirical data and develop a suite of versatile tools that can be applied independently or in combination to support bio-innovation and combat bio-threats.

Gene editing technologies …[can] selectively disable cancerous cells in the body, control populations of disease-spreading mosquitos, and defend native flora and fauna against invasive species, among other uses. The potential national security applications and implications of these technologies are equally profound, including protection of troops against infectious disease, mitigation of threats posed by irresponsible or nefarious use of biological technologies, and enhanced development of new resources derived from synthetic biology, such as novel chemicals, materials, and coatings with useful, unique properties.

Achieving such ambitious goals, however, will require more complete knowledge about how gene editors, and derivative technologies including gene drives, function at various physical and temporal scales under different environmental conditions, across multiple generations of an organism. In parallel, demonstrating the ability to precisely control gene edits, turning them on and off under certain conditions or even reversing their effects entirely, will be paramount to translation of these tools to practical applications…

Each of the seven teams will pursue one or more of three technical objectives: develop genetic constructs—biomolecular “instructions”—that provide spatial, temporal, and reversible control of genome editors in living systems; devise new drug-based countermeasures that provide prophylactic and treatment options to limit genome editing in organisms and protect genome integrity in populations of organisms; and create a capability to eliminate unwanted engineered genes from systems and restore them to genetic baseline states. Safe Genes research will not involve any releases of organisms into the environment; however, the research—performed in contained facilities—could inform potential future applications, including safe, predictable, and reversible gene drives….

A Harvard Medical School team led by Dr. George Church seeks to develop systems to safeguard genomes by detecting, preventing, and ultimately reversing mutations that may arise from exposure to radiation. This work will involve creation of novel computational and molecular tools to enable the development of precise editors that can distinguish between highly similar genetic sequences. The team also plans to screen the effectiveness of natural and synthetic drugs to inhibit gene editing activity.

A North Carolina State University (NCSU) team led by Dr. John Godwin aims to develop and test a mammalian gene drive system in rodents. The team’s genetic technique targets population-specific genetic variants found only in particular invasive communities of animals. If successful, the work will expand the tools available to manage invasive species that threaten biodiversity and human food security, and that serve as potential reservoirs of infectious diseases affecting native animal and human populations….

A University of California, Berkeley team led by Dr. Jennifer Doudna will investigate the development of novel, safe gene editing tools for use as antiviral agents in animal models, targeting the Zika and Ebola viruses. The team will also aim to identify anti-CRISPR proteins capable of inhibiting unwanted genome-editing activity, while developing novel strategies for delivery of genome editors and inhibitors….

A University of California, Riverside team led by Dr. Omar Akbari seeks to develop robust and reversible gene drive systems for control of Aedes aegypti mosquito populations.

Excerpts from Building the Safe Genes Toolkit, DARPA Press Release, July 19, 2017

State Capitalism at its Best: US Support for the Biotechnology Industry

These transgenic plums called C5 contain a gene that makes them highly resistant to plum pox virus.  Image from wikipedia

American diplomats lobbied aggressively overseas to promote genetically modified (GM) food crops such as soy beans, an analysis of official cable traffic revealed on Tuesday.  The review of more than 900 diplomatic cables by the campaign group Food and Water Watch showed a carefully crafted campaign to break down resistance to GM products in Europe and other countries, and so help promote the bottom line of big American agricultural businesses.

The cables, which first surfaced with the Wikileaks disclosures two years ago, described a series of separate public relations strategies, unrolled at dozens of press junkets and biotech conferences, aimed at convincing scientists, media, industry, farmers, elected officials and others of the safety and benefits of GM products..The public relations effort unrolled by the State Department also ventured into legal terrain, according to the report. US officials stationed overseas opposed GM food labelling laws as well as rules blocking the import of GM foods. The report notes that some of the lobbying effort had direct benefits. About 7% of the cables mentioned specific companies, and 6% mentioned Monsanto. “This corporate diplomacy was nearly twice as common as diplomatic efforts on food aid,” the report said….

In some instances, there was little pretence at hiding that resort to pressure – at least within US government circles. In a 2007 cable, released during the earlier Wikileaks disclosures, Craig Stapleton, a friend and former business partner of George Bush, advised Washington to draw up a target list in Europe in response to a move by France to ban a variety of GM Monsanto corn.  “Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits,” Stapleton wrote at the time.”The list should be measured rather than vicious and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices,” he wrote.

Excerpts, Suzanne Goldenberg,Diplomatic cables reveal aggressive GM lobbying by US officials, Guardian, May 15, 2013

Is India Abandoning Legal Action against Biopiracy?

From the Press Release of Environmental Support Group Feb. 7, 2012

In a shocking development, the Karnataka State Biodiversity Board [India] has resolved in its 19th meeting held on 20th January 2012 that it will not prosecute institutions and companies who violate the Biological Diversity Act.This highly controversial and illegal decision was taken in the context of reviewing [Environmental Support Group] ESG’s complaint of biopiracy against Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary Mahyco who along with their collaborators (University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwar; Tamilnadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore; Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Lucknow; Sathguru Foundation, Hyderabad; United States Agency for International Development and Cornell University, New York) wilfully violated the provisions of the Biological Diversity Act by illegally accessing 12 varieties of brinjal endemic to India and genetically modifying it, resulting in a patented product – B.t. Brinjal. This constitutes biopiracy, a criminal violation punishable with prison sentences.

The resolution passed by the Board is as follows: “The subject was deliberated and it was clarified that the subject comes under the purview of the National Biodiversity Authority. Therefore, it was resolved that it is for the National Biodiversity Authority to take necessary action at their end against institutions/companies regarding alleged violations of provisions under Biodiversity Act 2002.”

There is little doubt that this controversial resolution was passed to unhook Monsanto and its collaborators from biopiracy charges. It is tenable to draw such a conclusion as the current action agitates against the consistent position held by the Board that ESG’s complaint of biopiracy has merit and action must be initiated against the violators per the advise of the National Biodiversity Authority….This retrograde decision flies in the face of an assurance given to Parliament by Smt. Jayanti Natarajan, Indian Minister of State for Environment and Forests, as recently as on 28 September 2011. The Minister had stated that “(b)ased on preliminary information placed before it, the National Biodiversity Authority has recommended in principle to initiate legal action against alleged violators for violation of various provisions of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002”. …

This is more than likely to encourage more cases of biopiracy by corporates and thus seriously compromise biodiversity heritage and the food and social security that it extends to millions. Further, it will allow the loot of our natural wealth for maximising corporate profits by agricultural, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, while irreversibly jeopardising the economic and ecological security of present and future generations.

Excerpts from PRESS RELEASE, Karnataka abandons obligation to prosecute violators of Biological Diversity Act, Environmental Support Group, Feb. 7, 2012

Biosecurity: Censuring Research on Bird Flu

In December 2011 the scientific world was taken aback by an odd request. The American government, in the shape of the country’s National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), called on the world’s two leading scientific journals to censor research. Nature and Science were about to publish studies by researchers who had been tinkering with H5N1 influenza, better known as bird flu, to produce a strain that might be able to pass through the air between people. The NSABB fretted that were the precise methods and detailed genetic data to fall into the wrong hands, the consequences would be too awful to contemplate. They suggested that only the broad conclusions be made public; the specifics could be sent to vetted scientists only….

The WHO, for its part, said in a statement to Science that research like that of Dr Fouchier and Dr Kawaoka is “an important tool for global surveillance efforts”. The organisation also worries that limiting access to relevant findings would be difficult to square with its recently updated pandemic influenza preparedness framework. This agreement, which stipulates that countries which provide virus samples should also receive the benefits of research, was preceded by four years of rancorous debate. If anything can be said for certain, then, it is that the gulf between those in favour of tighter controls and those against will be hard to bridge in a mere two months.

Excerpt, Flu research and public safety: Influenza and its complications, Economist, Jan. 28, at 77