Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mutant animal armies

Here's a fascinating article from New Scientist:
In the urban jungle of Juazeiro in Brazil, an army is being unleashed. It is an army like no other: the soldiers' mission is to copulate rather than fight. But they are harbingers of death, not love. Their children appear healthy at first but die just before they reach adulthood, struck down by the killer genes their fathers passed on to them.

These soldiers are the first of a new kind of creature - "autocidal" maniacs genetically modified to wipe out their own kind without harming other creatures. The first animals being targeted with these "living pesticides" are disease-carrying mosquitoes and crop-munching caterpillars, but the approach should work with just about any animal - from invasive fish and frogs to rats and rabbits. If it is successful, it could transform the way we think about genetically engineered animals. ...

In theory, unlike zapping animals with radiation or chemosterilisation, the genetic approach should work well with just about any species. Besides the pink bollworm, Oxitec is targeting the mosquito Aedes aegypti, the single most important carrier of dengue, a viral disease that affects 50 to 100 million people in tropical regions every year,...

[Luke] Alphey and his colleagues have created a strain of A. aegypti with two copies of a gene that disrupts the development of offspring. The gene is switched off in the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline, allowing large numbers of perfectly fit mosquitoes to be bred for release. "With our system, the mosquitoes are fundamentally sterile and we're keeping them alive by giving them an artificial antidote," says Alphey. The insects also have the DsRed marker gene, to enable them to be easily monitored.

When these mosquitoes mate with wild females, the eggs hatch and the larvae develop normally until they reach the pupae stage, when the killer genes kick in. Delaying death like this is actually a cunning trick: the doomed larvae compete with wild larvae for resources, further reducing their numbers. ...

Transporting adults is not feasible. "Adult mosquitoes are all spindly and if you pack them into any kind of space, you end up with legs tangled up with wings and a lot of physical damage," says Alphey.

Instead, his team has created a strain in which the females cannot fly. The work was based on the discovery that female mosquitoes have a unique flight muscle protein that males lack, perhaps because females have to fly after a blood meal and so must fly with a much heavier load. Flightless females cannot find people to feed on and cannot mate either, so there is no need to separate the sexes. Envelopes containing millions of eggs could simply be mailed to wherever they are needed. "Just add water and you get instant mosquitoes," says Alphey.

The males that hatch from the eggs will appear normal and can pass the flightless gene to their daughters. Their sons will also inherit a single copy, so they too will produce some flightless daughters. "The construct will persist in the population for several generations but not for long due to its high fitness cost," says Alphey.

Neat, isn't it? Yet some Luddites are so opposed to genetic engineering that they have a knee-jerk response even to this. Nothing, I suppose, is 100% safe, but this seems to be about as close as you can get.

And doing nothing is certainly not safe.
[I]f autocidal technology lives up to its promise, it could be about as environmentally friendly as pest control can get. It could largely or entirely replace pesticides, and it affects only the target species. Last but not least, it is hard to see what could go wrong.

Many engineered plants, for instance, are being given advantageous traits such as disease resistance, so these genes could well spread among wild relatives. Autocidal traits, by contrast, are a great disadvantage and should disappear from the wild within a few generations after releases stop. "We are putting genes with huge, huge fitness penalties like death into something that's undesirable in the first place," says Alphey.

In theory, wild insects might be able to evolve resistance, for instance, by somehow learning to recognise and avoid insects with lethal genes. But this is much less likely to develop than pesticide resistance, and could be overcome by altering the release strain.

Needless to say, those opposed to genetic engineering are not convinced. "Genetic modification leads to both intended and unintended effects," says Ricarda Steinbrecher of EcoNexus, which describes itself as "a not-for-profit, public interest research organization". "There are potential knock-on effects on many other organisms," she claims.

Most biologists, though, agree the risks are minimal. "It is true that some of the regulations are being put together as the programmes are moving along, but the risks are really very, very small," says Mark Benedict, an entomologist at the University of Perugia in Italy.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff.

Along a somewhat similar, technologically advanced soldier vein, here's a video clip on modern warfare via drone on Sullivan today.
It's Sid Meier meets Gene Roddenberry:


WCG said...

Thanks for the link, Beets. That's a little more worrisome though, isn't it?

Partly, I wonder about war becoming too easy, too antiseptic. (Speaking of Gene Roddenberry, there was a Star Trek episode about that, wasn't there?)

And partly, of course, there's the worry about automated robotic soldiers. Keeping with this science fiction theme, that brings to mind Fred Saberhagen's berserkers.

Of course, pretty much every technological advance brings some worries with it. But that's neither a reason to shun all new technology nor to stop worrying.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if it's more worrisome. "Precision culling" could potentially save millions (even the world?).
The head of the snake... Bin Laden, Hitler, Vlad Tepes, Sean Hannity :)

Outstanding recall Trek Master: "A Taste of Armageddon"
(thank you o' mighty google machine)

Ah yes, extermination by your own machines.. classic.

WCG said...

No, even as a joke, that's not appropriate. The end doesn't justify the means, because usually the means has a bigger effect on our society than the desired end.

Government by assassination, for example, would be one of the worst things possible, no matter who was killed.

Even joking about murdering Sean Hannity is inappropriate (not to mention the undeniable fact that it would boomerang, giving a positive boost to all of Fox "News").

Anonymous said...

First - you are 100% correct about the inappropriate and insipid joke of including Hannity.
I feel a bit ignorant, and apologize for being offensive.

I wasn't inferring preemptive drone strikes on people suspected to have the potential to become a mass murderers.
I was referring to something very similar to what we witnessed in the attack on Bin Laden, a precision strike on someone engineering and in the process of the purposeful act of war.
The only difference being doing it via intelligence and drone, instead of boots and tanks on the ground or the aerial bombing campaigns upon thousands of soldiers and all too frequently innocent civilians.

It's possible my definition differs from yours, but, isn't the recent targeting of Bin Laden a "government assassination"?
I, for one, never believed it was Seals mission to bring him back the U.S. to stand trial, with the whole burial at sea what just a spur of the moment decision.

And what of Uday and Qusay Hussein?
Although their deaths were via the boots of 19 and 20 year soldiers on the ground, as throughout history - the boots are indeed government issued.

Regarding Bin Laden, an option the military advisers pushed and Obama admittedly took into consideration, was leveling the entire compound with a significant air strike.
I would find a precise strike preferable to knowingly taking out an entire family.

I don't know if that explanation aids my cause in your opinion.
No matter, I respect and understand your position.
The sanitation of the horrors of war could well prove catastrophic.

By the way, Sullivan has posted a discussion this morning on Star Trek's "A Taste of Armageddon" -

I view "blogs" and their ownership to be bit more personal in nature than most other media. Yours is the only one I've ever posted on.
Understanding this is your blog, and being a bit naive about this medium, I would respect your wishes (and would take no offense) if you find my posts intrusive, or less than desirable.

WCG said...

Offensive? Not at all. I knew you were joking about Hannity, but I didn't feel I could let it pass without saying something.

Yeah, I was being a stickler about it, but I would criticize such things on right-wing blogs, so I didn't think I could ignore it here. Other than that, I've welcomed your comments, though it would be nice if you could post as someone other than "Anonymous." :)

But no, that's no big deal, either, I assure you.

Re. targeted assassinations, I guess I have no problem with them in wartime, a little more problem with them in nebulous situations like the "war on terror," and a great deal of problem with them when it comes to ordinary CIA or police actions.

As you say, a missile is not as discriminating (though fewer people will die than in most military actions). And it's a lot less risky for our own people, than trying to capture a terrorist.

But, you know, I think it's that lack of reciprocal risk that bothers me most about missile/drone attacks. How does that look to the people we're targeting?

I know it's easy for me to say, since I'm not the one at risk, but if it's really necessary, isn't it worth some risk? I certainly don't want to imitate suicide bombers, but this dichotomy - as we push buttons to kill someone without the slightest risk in return - seems really excessive.

At any rate, I'm glad we got Osama bin Laden the way we did. That Seal team may or may not have been trying too hard to take him alive, but it's certainly plausible that he resisted. (I'm not going to second-guess them, since I wasn't there.) And we didn't kill a lot of innocent people, either - even those who weren't any friends of ours.

But yours aren't easy questions, and I don't have easy answers. I think we need to be uncomfortable about assassinations, even when we decide that it's the right thing to do. Or maybe especially then.

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out when I have a little more time.

Anonymous said...

On Hannity (and I'll let is rest).. you were right in calling that out. It is exactly what I find detestable in those on the extreme right.
A laissez faire disregard for simple civility, a modicum of restraint and moderation.

You state;
"But, you know, I think it's that lack of reciprocal risk that bothers me most about missile/drone attacks. How does that look to the people we're targeting?"

Couldn't agree more. That is the primary issue I also grapple with. Reciprocal risk imparts a vital dampening effect on the proclivity toward war (unless of course, you're of the aloof neocon bent)
Also, a significant factor in the current hatred and subsequent malice America faces is indeed the same imperial hegemony that would be concordant with mechanized warfare.