Thursday, August 12, 2004
The End of the Game?
Red fox, a species that Australian scientists would like to wipe out.
Scientists are looking at ways that genetic engineering might be able to help control invasive and pest species by altering the fundamentals of wild animal reproduction.
This research is strongly supported by the Humane Society and other anti-hunting groups across the world. Click here for more information.
One does not have to be a hysteric to see that genetic engineering in the reproductive arena could have a very serious negative impact on wildlife all over the world. The history of humans playing God on Earth is a very ugly one and -- ironically enough -- has often led to invasive species that escaped the "theory" of science and ran amok in the world like Frankenstein.
Scientists, after all, imported the cane toad to Australia as a way of controlling insects in the sugar cane field -- the legacy is poisoned dogs and a country stinking from a billion crushed toad corpses on the highway. The toads did nothing to control insects, by the way, but they have speeded up the death of many small marsupials that have either been poisoned by the toads or eaten by them (the toads are as big as dinner plates and can swallow a sparrow whole).
Scientists said introducing the Indian mongoose onto Caribbean islands would be a good way to control snakes that were decimating native bird populations there. Those same scientists were surprised to learn that the mongoose and the snake kept very different hours in the Caribbean and rarely saw each other -- leading the mongoose to turn to bird eggs and small hatchlings as a source of food. Rather than slow bird loss, mongoose introduction speeded it up!
It was also a scientist who brough the gypsy moth to the U.S. as part of a hair-brained scheme to start a silk worm industry in this country. The actual result, of course, was the destruction of vast stretches of forest.
Full of hubris, some scientists are now pushing genetic engineering as way of eliminating many introduced or "nuisance" species.
Nowhere is this push greater than in Australia where a combination of introduced red fox, feral cats, rabbits, feral dogs, feral pigs, and feral goats are devastating native wildlife and habitat.
In Australia, scientists are looking to introduce genetically modified (GM) carp into the wild. The offspring of the GM carp are all male, and it's hoped that this will help wipe out the invasive European carp that now represent 90 per cent of the fish biomass in the Murray-Darling river system. What's the problem? The most obvious problem is that "daughterless" GM-carp will almost certainly be introduced into other rivers by sport fishermen, and indigenous wild carp populations across the globe may eventually be decimated. Carp are an esstential food source in many parts of the world, especially Asia.
In Australia, scientists are also looking to conduct field trials with a virus that makes European rabbits infertile. Female rabbits infected with a transgenic myxomatosis virus will cause rabbits to produce antibodies against their own eggs, damaging them enough to block fertilization, a process called immunocontraception. Scientists say they will use a "crippled" version of the myxamatosis virus that cannot replicate itself, so that the new immunocontraception virus will not be able to spread from animal to animal (i.e. to all the European rabbits in the world).
What's the problem with viral immunocontraception? One problem is that scientists do not have a terribly good track record guaranteeing sterility. For example, not all of the triploid Grass Carp released into weed-choked golf course ponds in the U.S. turned out to be sterile despite scientists's assurance that they all would be.
Another case of non-sterility occurred when it was found that not all of the "sterile" fruit flies released in California to combat a small outbreak of the Mediterranean Fruit Fly were, in fact, sterile.
Compared to fish and flies, a mistake with a replicating virus would be very difficult to contain. "Woops!" is not a comforting comment to make after you have released a self-replicating immunocontraceptive virus that has wiped out every rabbit on earth.
Rabbits are not the only animal on the docket for control or elimination. Crackpot scientists in Australia are also working on virual immunocontraception for red fox and stoats.
If wiping out all the rabbits and fox in the world is not enough to give you pause, you might think a bit about where this is going. What can be done for rabbits and fox can easily be done for humans. It turns out that the the biology of mammal reproduction is not terribly different from one species to another as far as the zona pellucida protein is concerned.
The zona pellucida is the area where the egg and sperm unite, and which is effected by the genetically-modified virus that the scientists are experimenting with. The transgenic virus can do either of two things -- thicken the wall of the egg so that the sperm bounces off, or shorten the tail on the sperm so that it never reaches the "ramming speed" needed to break through the egg cell wall. Either way, fertilization does not occur.
Of course, a virus that merely left humans infertile may be the least of our worries. In their continuing quest to be helpful, the same Australian scientists working on an immunocontraception viruses for rabbits and mice have announced that a small change made to a "mousepox" virus made it incredibly more virulent and totally resistant to normally effective mousepox vaccines. They note that the same change can also be made to the human smallpox virus, with predictable results.
Thank goodness these insane Australian scientists have announced and published their results so that even less responsible scientists can follow up (see http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns9999311).
Who is it pushing this mad science and why? Answer: the animal rights lunatics who oppose hunting and pest control of species that are in superabundance. In the end, they may be the death of us all.