2018/10/03: The announcement from a new genetic technology had successfully eradicated a carefully contained population of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes grabbed headlines last week across the world. It not only indicated an incredible piece of science. It also opened a Pandora’s box of complicated ethical questions.
The technology works by creating a disruption to a particular gene found in the sex cells of mosquitoes. By manipulating something called the “doublesex” gene, the researchers were able to ensure a stream of female descendents possessing a biological mix of both male and female mosquito parts. These “intersex” mosquitoes are both genetically and phenotypically revolutionary.
Is it desirable for humans, rather than evolutionary forces, to determine both the species composition and the genetic make-up of the organisms that surround us? As technologies reach deeper into the surrounding world and become more precise, is it morally acceptable for humans to drive engineered changes through systems previously determined by ancient forces lying beyond our species’ reach? To some extent this means the transformation of nature into artifact.
Such a future would mark a new period in earth’s history in which one species takes up a novel role as planetary manager and designer. This species would do this consciously, deliberately, and – in the case of gene drives – quite dramatically.
Such a tightly engineered future may be inevitable. It may, in many ways, also be highly desirable.
What it shouldn’t be is a future we find ourselves immersed in without the chance to debate it, to reflect on it, and to fully understand the arguments both in its favor and against it. This is a discussion that is only just beginning.
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of children continue to die of malaria.