If We Want to Discuss Scientific Ethics, We Need to Teach Scientific Literacy

Science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow’s problems flow.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Late last year a Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that his team had created two genetically engineered human embryos that lead to the birth of two female siblings.  I wrote an article about why this shouldn’t have surprised anyone (It Might Have Happened, We Don’t Know for Sure, But Now We Freak.) While there may still be some questions, all the technology needed currently exists.

In June 2019 Russian scientist Denis Rebrikov announced that he plans to seek approval from several government agencies to perform a similar experiment to He Jiankui. It is not currently clear that human genetic engineering is legal under Russian law, or that Dr. Rebrikov will receive approval for his trial.

Beyond genetically engineering humans a few days ago (Aug 3, 2019) a report came out about the creation of a Human-Monkey chimera First Human–Monkey Chimeras Developed in China. Professor Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte’s group of the Salk institute conducted the experimented in China.  According to the report, the scientists chose to perform the research in China to avoid legal issues. The same group produced a human-pig chimera in 2017.

On top of questions concerning human experimentation, there are questions about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  Just like debates about human genetic engineering, the discussions about GMOs are occurring after the fact.  Today more then 90% of the Hawaiian Papaya crop is Genetically modified (How GMO Technology Saved the Papaya).  Other conventional crops like corn, soybeans, and canola oil are also mostly GMO.

I could continue listing procedures that are emerging that have or will have ethical debates associated with them.  However, if we are going to have meaningful discussions, it is essential that individuals have a basic scientific understanding.  Specifically, what are the techniques scientists use and why were they chosen.  What is genetic engineering?  What is a Chimera?  What are stem cells?  Why are we interested in these techniques?  Why should we use them? 

Let’s start with the basics according to Merriam Webster

  • Genetic engineering: the group of applied techniques of genetics and biotechnology used to cut up and join together genetic material and especially DNA from one or more species of organism and to introduce the result into an organism in order to change one or more of its characteristics
  • Chimera: an individual, organ, or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic constitution
  • Stem cells: an unspecialized cell that gives rise to differentiated cells

While a few of these definitions could lead to additional questions, what does “diverse genetic constitution” mean, I can live with them.  These definitions would be a good starting point for discussions in class.  However, a lot of today’s society is like to go to Wikipedia instead of the dictionary.

  • Genetic engineering: Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification or genetic manipulation, is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genes using biotechnology.
  • Chimera: A genetic chimerism or chimera (/kaɪˈmɪərə/ ky-MEER-ə or /kɪˈmɪərə/ kə-MEER-ə, also chimera (chimæra) is a single organism composed of cells with distinct genotypes.
  • Stem cells: Stem cells are cells that can differentiate into other types of cells, and can also divide in self-renewal to produce more of the same type of stem cells.

Fortunately for society, many of these definitions are excellent; in fact, the Wikipedia definition of Genetic Engineering and Stem cells is probably better than Merriam Webster’s definition.

So that means that GMOs are the product of Genetic Engineering. So why would you want to create GMOs?  There are lots of reasons let’s talk about Golden rice.  Golden rice is a GMO designed to combat vitamin A deficiency.  Due to starch content, white rice is a good source of calories. However, rice lacks several essential nutrients (including vitamin A).

To combat Vitamin A deficiency, scientists engineered rice to produce β-carotene, which the human body turns into vitamin A.  Scientists created Golden rice by the insertion of two genes into the rice genome.  The final product is rice, that is a golden color and provides β-carotene.  So, in the case of golden rice, the reason for genetic engineering was to combat malnutrition. Other researchers are trying to create crops that need less fertilizer or pesticides, that have better yields, or to do less damage to the soil.

There are people that no matter what the goal is will say GMOs should be outlawed.  The question, of course, is why? After all, we have been modifying our food for thousands of years.  Let’s talk about Cauliflower.  The many types of cabbage, broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, and cauliflower are all descended from the same plant. Brassica oleracea also called wild cabbage (The extraordinary diversity of Brassica oleracea).

Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) photo by Kurt Kulac,. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) photo by Kurt Kulac,. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Over thousands of years farmers selected for traits they found desirable, leading to all the variants, many of which don’t even look like the same plant like cauliflower.

A cauliflower plant photographed by Bloemkool. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
A cauliflower plant photographed by Bloemkool. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Research into Arabidopsis thaliana flower development by scientists using a mutagen (a chemical compound that creates changes in DNA) to create mutations.  One of these mutations produced plants that looked like cauliflower (Molecular basis of the cauliflower phenotype in Arabidopsis).  Additional research showed that the gene muted in Arabidopsis to produce the cauliflower phenotype was the same naturally occurring mutation in Brassica oleracea that was selected to produce cauliflower.

The research into plant development means that I could reproduce cauliflower in three different ways.  One, I could selectively breed Brassica oleracea to produce cauliflower.  Two, I could create mutations in Brassica oleracea using chemical mutagens and select for cauliflower.  Three, since we know the gene, I could use genetic engineering to create cauliflower from Brassica oleracea.  Most importantly done correctly, I could produce cauliflower using all three of these methods, and genetically, they would be identical.  However, even though there would be no difference between the three varieties, people would insist that the GMO cauliflower caused all kinds of problems, why?

While GMOs are already out in the wild and because of the spread of pollen, it is unlikely that society will ever put GMOs back in the box.  With several of the recent occurrences, it might also be too late for human genetic engineering, human GMOs.  Now let’s talk about Chimera’s. 

One of the primary goals for human-monkey or human-pig chimeras is the production of organs for transplant.  A common statistic is that 20 people die every day in the US waiting for a transplant. In the case of organ transplants, individuals would donate cells that scientists combine with an early pig embryo. The human cells would then give rise to the lungs, which doctors would transplant.  Currently, scientists have not produced chimeras with enough human cells to create organs that are viable for transplant.  However, it is only a matter of time until this becomes possible.  Will people wait until the first transplant occurs to talk about chimeras?

However, just as significant as the question, “will we discuss something before it happens?” Is the question of whether we are doing enough to teach science so the general society can adequately discuss the issues?  How important do you think science classes for nonmajors are?  Nonmajors class might make all the difference to the future of scientific research and medical improvements.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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