The side of caution: genetic engineering comes with deadly risks


By Paul Delutio

In an age where our technological capabilities are increasing at an alarming rate, it is often difficult to simultaneously gauge our ethical responsibilities before implementing our scientific advancements.

Recently there has been a reemergence of a disease from the forests of Uganda named the Zika virus. No one knows why this explosion in the Zika virus has occurred, but there is one theory of particular intrigue.

Prior to the Zika outbreak, an English biotech company known as Oxitec released genetically modified mosquito hybrids into the environments of the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil. The project was executed with the hope of eradicating the Aedes species mosquitoes that were causing people to contract terrible diseases such as Dengue Fever and Chikungunya, the same species of mosquito that transmits the Zika virus.

Traditionally, biotech companies employ a strategy known as the Sterile Insect Technique when attempting to stifle the population growth of a particular pest. This technique involves exposing male insects of a particular species to radiation in the laboratory then releasing them into the environment to breed. The corrupted males then create sickly weak and sickly offspring, dying at an early stage. However, this technique does not work with mosquitoes because the males are particularly susceptible to radiation sickness, dying before they get a chance to mate. This is where Oxitec took over.

Oxitec injected male Aedes species mosquitoes with a gene that produces a protein which shuts off other cellular functions within the insect. After the males mate, they pass on the gene, dying along with their defective offspring. Although Oxitec had humanity’s best interest in mind, is it possible that these field tests have led to the reemergence of a once forgotten viral strain? The answer is unclear, yet still raises further points of discussion.

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The biotechnology of the future can be a very frightening concept. Look no further than Jurassic Park for the conflicts concerning ethics and biotechnology. To introduce something we created into an environment is taking an enormous risk when considering the ramifications that could possibly occur. Maybe the best course of action would be to spend more money on medical treatment for infected victims rather than running amok in the environment with hybrids that continue to breed and adapt in ways we had never considered.

As students who attend an institute founded on the principles of science and technology, it is important for us to consider the ethical questions associated with these recent events. If, in some way, there is a relationship between genetically modified mosquitoes and the Zika virus outbreak, then in the future research and further testing must be employed in order to avoid escalating pre-existing environmental disasters.

Paul is a Freshman in LAS

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