Blogs > Cliopatria > Follow-up On Genetically Modified Athletes and Organisms

Jan 21, 2004 7:16 am


Follow-up On Genetically Modified Athletes and Organisms



A follow-up to my previous screed on genetically modified athletes. Buried in the State of the Re-Election Campaign coverage was a little warning from a panel of scientists: modified genes, particularly transgenic genes (genes moved from one organism to another), cannot be effectively contained or controlled with current technology or techniques. In other words, if anything modified gets into the wild, it could radically alter ecosystems. Not that we're not radically altering ecosystems on a daily basis anyway, but this is just one more potentially disastrous side effect of a simple-minded approach to technology and science and profit. Of course if you put the two together and you have to wonder what the future of humanity will look like? Not that different would be terrible, but do we know what we're doing?


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Jonathan Dresner - 1/23/2004

Back40 writes "The sickle cell story is true but not relevant since it is trivially easy to eliminate that pattern with simple breeding control."

I didn't hear you right, did I? "Breeding control"? The whole point of Oscar's comment was that it may not be desirable to eliminate the sickle-cell gene. Your casual dismissal of that is bad enough, but "breeding control"? "Simple breeding control" no less: and you call me unrealistic and irresponsible?


back40 - 1/23/2004

"...there's a significant difference in giving a kick to genetic drift... and sticking genes from one species into a member of a very different species."

There is no physical difference. All life spells itself with the same alphabet and share the majority of words in their languages. We are much like worms and coral polyps at the genetic level. Scrambling the letters in one text to produce another, and inserting words from a different text have precisely the same result.

One of the common uses of GE is to quickly and surely develop a modified genome using intentional alteration so that the new genome can be tested for value. When it is verified to be truly desirable then time consuming, error prone less direct methods are used to reach the same result so that the claim can be made that the new genome is not engineered.

"The range of intended changes can far greater in the latter case."

False. It's just faster and surer.

"The interaction of the new genes with the old, which is not very predictable even when genes from the same or similar species are being transferred, is wildly unpredictable here."

No more so than with any genome change. That's one of the great benefits of controlled change and subsequent verification of the actual chemicals produced by the altered genome. Non GE mutations are not tested at all, they are considered substantially similar and have no reporting requirements.

The sickle cell story is true but not relevant since it is trivially easy to eliminate that pattern with simple breeding control.

"...there are many nuances to genetic interaction that we are just beginning to learn. It would be nice to learn them without experimenting on the entire world."

This is the most severe and pervasive error in anti-GE thought. We have been doing these experiments for centuries and doing them with increasing intensity since industrialization. Now, for the first time, we have technologies to understand and analyze changes before we make them and after test examples are produced. We can even do it on non-viable fragments in vitro. It isn't that there is no longer any threat, it's that it is significantly reduced. This is the progression responsible commentators should communicate, especially to youths.


Jonathan Dresner - 1/22/2004

Oh, you're including random, accidental gene manipulation? Sure. But since we have no evidence that those events, however likely or unlikely, produced results which had any impact on agriculture, the ecosphere or people's attitudes, I think I'm justified in my "faith" that it is irrelevant to the discussion. Evolution, genetic drift, cross-breeding all happen randomly, "in the wild" as they say.

I'm not at all convinced that our ability to see the damage equates to an ability to control the damage. Call me irresponsible (again) if you like, but I think the truly irresponsible ones are the institutions experimenting with and marketing mutagenic and transgenic products in the ecosphere with minimal safeguards. We haven't had a truly catastrophic genetic event for some time, but we're juggling fire here.


back40 - 1/22/2004

Chemical mutagenesis requires no more technology than it takes to make soap from ashes and fat, ferment woad to paint our awesome selves blue before battle, or burn marble to make the slaked lime to create frescoes and mosaics. To assume that these simple ancient technologies were not used to treat seeds, even if done accidentally, is an act of faith.

Our ability to reduce unintended consequences in GE is greatly increased by our ability to detect them. We now know there are genes and can sequence them, do before and after comparisons, isolate metabolites and test them. If you fail to understand this as increased control it may explain why you cling to your fears and deny progress. A more rational fear is to note that increased control is not perfect control and that life now, as ever, is dangerous.


Oscar Chamberlain - 1/22/2004

I don't know of ancient use of such techniques to produce variation, either. Even if true, there's a significant difference in giving a kick to genetic drift, which is what Back 40 described, and sticking genes from one species into a member of a very different species.

1. The range of intended changes can far greater in the latter case.

2. Commercial applications could lead to far more and far more economically successful attempts than those Back40 refer to,

3. The interaction of the new genes with the old, which is not very predictable even when genes from the same or similar species are being transferred, is wildly unpredictable here.

The problem is not catastrophic failures; those take care of themselves. The problem is the more subtle failures that can occur.

An example of the problems of unintentional changes--here invovling genes within a species.

Sickle cell anemia is a genetic illness. Anyone who has the recessive gene involved from both parents has a lousy and short life. It would be logical to get rid of it or alter it in some manner.

However, having a mixture of the dominant and recessive gene increases immunity to malaria. For people living in tropical climates, barring other means of dealing with malaria, the society as a whole benefits more from the immunity than it is harmed

This was fairly easy to detect. But there are many nuances to genetic interaction that we are just beginning to learn. It would be nice to learn them without experimenting on the entire world.


Jonathan Dresner - 1/22/2004

I'm intrigued, but unconvinced, by your assertion that mutagenesis is "ancient" technology. The only reference I've been able to find so far (http://www.geneticsmedia.org/ABN/congress_history.htm) clearly puts it in the 20th century. But that's only scientific study. Can you offer a curious skeptic something like proof?

I am entirely unconvinced by your confidence in our supposedly greater ability to control the results of our experiments. Which one of us is being irresponsible in this debate is a matter that time will have to reveal.


mark safranski - 1/22/2004

Well, you'd be hard-pressed to find a high-level professional coach who will assert with a straight face that top tier athletes compete "clean ".( Passing a test does not mean you are drug-free, particularly since some highly potent non-steroid anabolic hormones remain undetectable. Also some transdermal anabolics are out of the system within a few days, rendering all but the most draconian random testing useless). Testing has had the benefit of preventing the most reckless and dangerous drug use of the 1970's and 1980's from being reprised but that's about it.

This is not to say that the champions are not genetically talented - they are for the reasons you cite - they're simply genetically superior people who are also training with a variety of ergogenics to secure maximum performance. Eliminate all of these things and most of the same people would still win, though less spectacularly and with more injuries from cumulative microtrauma along the way.

However you can't eliminate these things but you could reasonably regulate their use so that a particular competitor would not secure an overwhelming advantage - which happens now when an athlete has a particularly adept and test-savvy doctor


back40 - 1/21/2004

Mutagenesis isn't recent. The use of heat, ultra violet radiation and chemical treatments to induce variation is ancient. They may not have had the science to accurately describe what they were doing but they were doing it. They gave their various gods the credit, or blame, since it was magic to them.

The potential for drastic change was far greater than with today's controlled methods, and testing to verify change is far greater today. Mutagneic cultivars are still produced and face no testing. The use of hard radiation and more sophisticated chemical methods is more recent, 19th century technology, but the randomness is the same as pre-industrial efforts.

Responsible commentators should describe this progression and applaud efforts to become ever more precise since it is our best approach to reducing risks from unintended, unremarked and unregulated change.


Jonathan Dresner - 1/21/2004

I agree that we're getting more skillful, but that's part of the problem. Mutagenesis (which is very recent, not "centuries old") and selective breeding are relatively mild processes, genetically speaking, at least compared to the transgenic and gene-switching techniques that are the current state-of-the-art. The potential for drastic change is greater and unintended consequences are still largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

Yes, there's politics involved. I want scientists and lawmakers to work together so that the laws are scientifically sound and the science is ethical and controlled. If and when disaster strikes, it will be a political issue....


Jonathan Dresner - 1/21/2004

Sure, there's an awful lot of hard training and supplements at the high end. But there's also a globalization effect over the last century, particularly in the last twenty years: as more and more of the world's population becomes aware of more and more sports the pool of potential athletes rises dramatically, sometimes altering sports drastically. For example, the integration of professional US sports; inclusion of Pacific Islanders and Mongolians in Japanese Sumo; Japanese baseball and its effect on US baseball; African marathoners; Eastern European gymnasts; Latin American baseball.....

I'm not ready to give up on the idea that there are "real" athletes out there, nor on the idea that it is better to compete naturally than to win or lose based on a chemical "edge."

"Surrendering to the inevitable" would accelerate the process of steroid and supplement use in wider and wider populations: Even the President's State of the Union highlighted student athlete steroid use, though nobody is sure why.

I just don't see the fun in "my nutritionist is better than your nutritionist" sports. And if it isn't fun to watch, then it isn't economically viable.


back40 - 1/21/2004

This isn't science, it's politics. We have been creating genetically altered organisms for centuries using a collection of techniques called mutagenesis - forced mutation using heat, chemicals and radiation. Many of our food crops have been altered in this way and even more of our ornamentals. The things these "scientists" are nattering about happened long ago. What has changed is that scientists (real ones) are at long last developing mechanisms to reduce unintended consequences. We are becoming more skillful and more careful.


mark safranski - 1/21/2004

I think we should be cautious not only of potential pitfalls in genetic engineering but of missing benefits due to imagined worst case scenarios. Such a perspective has a chilling effect on a field of scientific research that holds much promise for human health, lifespan, quality of life and yes, performance.

Steroids were mentioned so I would have to add that elite athletes by and large operate with hormonal profiles adjusted wildly beyond the normal range and have done so for many decades. When you see a world class track and field athlete, sprinter, weightlifter, football player you are already seeing performance beyond the realm of the possible by natural athletes, even the best genetic talents. Chinese female swimmers now resemble the old East German team for this reason.

Not just steroids but GH, IGF-1,corticosteroids,estrogen blockers, transdermal testosterone, Insulin, Clenbuterol and exotic " designer " versions of hormones that are undectectable by IOC testing procedures ( which being, gas chromatography are more accurate and expensive than that used by other sports organizations). Closing the barn door now is basically scientifically impossible so the goal should be leveling the playing field and protecting the health of the athletes

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