You will find it hard to find someone as enthusiastic about the potential of science and how it could benefit us. However, there are several things I think everyone should be aware of in spite of our amazing advances.
Our knowledge is recent in most fields. Something I say is that “man has really been AWARE for about 100 years.” What I mean by this is that 100 or so years ago we looked into a human body and saw gross organs and had no idea what they did or how they worked. 100 years ago we barely learned that there was a speed limit in the universe and bizarre things like space and time can be warped and we had no inkling of quantum mechanics. We fared the seas and land of the earth but had no idea of the environment or our potential impact on it.
Today we have advanced to such a great extent it seems like a lot of people including scientists have become arrogant about our knowledge. I find that bizarre because the constant discoveries if anything should inform us of how little we actually know.
We recently learned about the human genetic code completing the Human Genome project after taking years and years. Now we can sequence a humans genome in minutes a leap of thousands of time in performance. We have in the laboratory modified genes, found ways to manipulate them and contemplated modifying human genome as well as animal and plant. We have even run trials on inserting genes into humans. In China recently they tried modifying a human stem cell with modified genes to engineer a fix for a genetic disorder in a baby.
Genetic Understanding is limited and recent
As a counterbalance to these seeming advances should be an enormous awareness of how little we know. Only a few years ago we discovered that there was an entirely separate code in the genome that we thought was “junk” that is called the Epigenetic code. It turns out the epigenetic code actually controls the operation of the genes. We didn’t seem to realize this was missing.
In this article it describes how complex the control logic is and how it is clear we are very far at this point from understanding exactly how this system works even in theory let alone in fact.
We also found a 5th base pair enzyme that is used for some of that epigentic coding. Recently we discovered a 6th base pair enzyme that is used in the epigenetic code of at least some plants and maybe in humans. We learned fairly recently the nucleus has a place for storing new genetic information learned while a plant, animal or human is still alive and potentially in some cases transferring this to subsequent offspring. We though this was categorically impossible for the last 100 years.
When we are learning such basic things about the way genes work it should make you wonder about the claims made by scientists who say they “know” this or that.
We really have no serious understanding of the epigenetic code operation as a whole. We don’t understand today how a single cell proceeds to become a human being and how the genes accomplish this. We have some ideas, we have some strong suspicions. However, what this is meant to illustrate is that from the standpoint of saying we actually understand the genetic code of any plant or animal we are still a long way away from really fully grokking how this “life thing” works.
What would knowing look like?
If we knew how this stuff works it would be like building an airplane for example or building a chip in a CAD machine. You would say I need an airplane that goes 450mph, flies to 50,000 feet, holds so many passengers and I would be able to design you that plane using tools we have. I would have a pretty good idea of just about everything about the plane before I even built the first one. If you ask me to build a computer circuit to solve a certain problem I can use CAD tools to lay out and solve the problem. I would know how to manufacture it. If I said I want a gene that does X or I want to modify a gene to do Y we are really clueless.
When we are doing things with genetics we are clueless about so much it’s almost hard to know where to start. We understand living things build proteins from the genes and we have an idea how the process of actually constructing a protein works from reading out the DNA nucleotide sequence to the creation of the protein. For the vast majority of genes we dont know what they do. For those we have an idea of what they impact we usually have no idea how it does what it does. We have no idea when these machines get created on the whole or when they get turned off. Vast sections of the DNA appear to be off and is unused.
What we have been doing for the last 20 years is building the tools to even start to experiment with DNA. Our technique is essentially pattern matching. We’re hoping that vast amounts of data will help us decipher what genes and epigenetic coding is associated with what characteristics, problems, advantages or purpose. We are about as familiar with this in plants, animals or humans. Once we start to make all those correlations we can study the proteins themselves and start to understand their makeup and function.
Proteins appear to be made of common components. Sections of DNA repeat among different genes pointing to a subcomponent like architecture where the protein machines are made of modules like a motorbike has wheels, an engine, brakes. A protein machine probably has components that can detect things, other things that can manipulate things at the atomic level. Some proteins are transportation devices that carry things along fibers in the skeletal structure of the cell. Some machines can carry larger things, some smaller things. Some can ferry things to the border of the cell and some inside the nucleus.
How do these proteins do these things? Convert one chemical into another? Help separate one material from another. What do all these proteins do? We are just at the very early stages of trying to compile this information. At the pace we are going, possibly in 10 or 20 years we will actually know a lot more about how all this works. Maybe then we can start introducing into the environment, into the plant, animal and human modifications of the genes.
Is there a compelling need?
Do you understand what I am saying? I am proud of our achievements. I am not in any way diminishing anything we have learned. I am simply saying it is healthy to understand how weak our understanding is because with respect to genetics the possibilities for causing damage to an individual or to large numbers of plants, animals or humans is large because we really have no idea how all this works or what the consequences longer term on other plants, animals or humans.
I strongly suggest that we do NOT proceed down the road to use GMO crops. I say this knowing they have studied this, that the changes they are doing are limited, that they have tested it to some extent. I am hoping we are lucky and that the GMO stuff we have done so far is truly limited in terms of its impact but we face a decision.
We do tests on new drugs for 10 years frequently when the impact will be on a few humans. We carefully control those in the trials and we monitor everyone after the drug is released for years because even after trials we sometimes find problems. We tried to do our first genetic insertions via virus about 10 years ago with catastrophic results. Some people died. Before we modify the genetic code of the plants and animals we eat we should have a pretty robust understanding of the longer term and broader impact of what we are doing, how to reverse it should we find out we need to. This should take at least 10 year study in a controlled environment.
We have to be aware that the nature of plants, animals and humans is to sexual reproduction which mixes genes across widely disbursed areas. There is no way to guarantee that any change we make will not produce consequences we did not anticipate. We cannot be sure that the genes we change will not find their way into things we had no clue about before.
There are several established organizations around research and ethics of human genome research. We are extremely cautious at this point about doing anything with humans genetically. When we’ve done animal experiments it’s been very controlled in the laboratory. All I’m saying is that the same rules be applied to the plant genome for now. We should apply the same rules across plants, animals and humans.
My feeling is that it will take us 10 or 20 years to gain enough understanding to be able to do some of these things with the data and experience to know what the consequences will be.
I am not aware of any truly compelling reason why we need GMO crops. I understand they help a lot, sometimes tremendously, sometimes it may seem essential but the fact is we have seen dramatic drops in poverty and food supply without GMO crops.
I am not saying we should permanently stop ourselves from doing this. I am not at all saying we should stop researching it. I am not saying it is impossible. I am simply saying we need to apply the same rules across humans, animals and plants. It is unlikely we are ready to do this on plants in general in the outside world for another decade.
I am not sure where the bar is but just a few of the points I made earlier clearly point out that our knowledge of this is just too nascent to endeavor on this road at this time. This seems like common sense to me.
I frequently hear that scientists are unified on this that it is safe to use GMO products and to do GMO plants. I find that puzzling and I am a scientist. Yes, a computer scientist but I have studied physics and read extensively about science in general. I graduated from MIT and so I’m not an idiot about science.
We are too arrogant
I am frequently stunned by how much humans tend to elevate themselves above others. It’s true among sub-groups of humans who like to portray themselves as elevated compared to others, sometimes based on national identity or racial identity. How normal they are or intelligent or whatever. We greatly overestimate our superiority to other creatures. We are an egotistical species.
Human beings at most have existed for a few hundred thousand years over the monkeys. 99% of our genetic coding is virtually identical to some monkeys. There has not been enough time for there to have been a significant “evolution” of human above other species.
We also have to consider that we live with animals and plants on this planet together. Even if we are superior to them in some measures we are still codependent and not to recognize that is just stupid and evidence of how we aren’t superior at all. We cannot treat the genetic material of plants, animals and humans differently because plants are inferior, animals inferior to humans, not as valuable or more expendable. These are short-sighted and arrogant attitudes that are dangerous.
We have to consider that whatever we do in this area may have far reaching effects we didn’t contemplate, that we will not be able to reverse them. We certainly have no idea what to do if something goes wrong. Our inability to understand means we also have no understanding of how to correct problems that might arise including how to eliminate the spread of genes that turn out to be a problem.
Can I say it any clearer? I don’t believe we are ready to start mass use of gene modifications in plants, animals or humans on this planet yet.
I realize there is a lot of money at stake in GMO crops and GMO research.
There are other areas I’ve seen where humans have gotten arrogant about our knowledge saying we know more than we do, thinking we understand the consequences of things when we don’t or how things would react. It can be relatively harmless if applied to an area where it won’t cause permanent impact or is purely a monetary thing.
Unfortunately, modifying the genetic code is an area we should be aware of how little we know.