|Ratting with terriers in Cornwall.|
Back in August of 2004, I posted a piece ("The End of the Game") about something called viral immunocontraception. The basic thrust of this Australian mad-scientist scheme was to create a virus to sterilize entire populations of animals: fox, rabbits, people, mice, rats, carp, etc.
The chance for such a thing to run out of control and end "Life on Earth as We Know It"seems pretty obvious ... but apparently not to a small cadre of Australian scientists warmly embraced by Animal Right lunatics willing to risk killing off everything on Earth in order to prevent hunters from firing a shot.
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....
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 scientist'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. "Whoops!" is not a comforting comment to make after you have released a self-replicating immunocontraceptive virus that has wiped out every rabbit on earth.
The good news is that in 2005, 10 years of no substantive progress in the field, the Australian scientists lost their funding.
The bad news is that CRISPR technology has now made gene editing very cheap and very accurate, so the Mad Scientist contingent is sure to pop up and they will in all likelihood be unstoppable.
Already up at bat: a plan to wipe out brown rats in all of Britain (and never mind if it was the Brown Rat that stopped the Bubonic Plague).
From The Telegraph:
Now experts at Edinburgh University believe that a process called ‘gene drive’ could solve the [rat] problem. It works by spreading infertility genes through a population, which causes a catastrophic drop in numbers over several generations.
A similar approach is already being tested in mosquitoes, to help control diseases like malaria and zika. But now the scientists want to find out it if could also work in mammals.
The technology uses the DNA editing technique called Crispr, a natural process by which bacteria fight off viruses by snipping away at their DNA.
The rodents would be genetically modified in the laboratory before being released into the wild where they could mate with the native population.
Professor Bruce Whitelaw, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, where Dolly the Sheep was created, said: “For the first time we have the makings of technology that could reduce or eliminate a pest population in a humane and species-specific manner.
“Crispr is perhaps the most exciting tool that has ever hit biology, and it is a fantastic tool for us to pull apart the function of genes and how the animal or plant functions.
“It’s time to explore what this technology can do.”
Right. The reporter on this piece has misspelled the word -- it's CRISPR in all caps, and to say it is a "natural process" is to suggest that the atom bomb is too.
As for the scientists who want to wipe out rats, I assure you that they have spent too little time thinking of the negative follow-on as other species (such as the black rat) fill in the ecological niches created, and as other species (such as snakes and fox) collapse from declining food sources.
As I noted back in 2004:
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 brought 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.
But of course it would not end there would it?
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.
And so there we have it: Man's ability to fit and fiddle with the essential elements of biology and physics is the veritable opening of Pandora's Box. We would be wise to have someone other than Pollyanna at the table when the rules for use are crafted. I fear a small black box warning may not be enough.