In the 1993 hit “Jurassic Park,” geneticists discover dinosaur DNA inside a prehistoric mosquito trapped within amber. Although sequences in the genetic material were missing, frog genes were spliced in to fill missing information. Scientists soon brought the Mesozoic creatures back to life (sadly, just in the movie.)
While all the dinosaurs are made female to prevent reproduction, it’s soon hinted that the genes used to “de-extinct” them come from an amphibian capable of shifting sexes under natural pressures. The dinosaurs escape and the gene apparently activates. The beasts begin laying eggs and soon take over the island.
The movie, and the Michael Crichton book series on which it was based, now stands as one of American culture’s greatest cautionary tales warning against genetic engineering.
To the dismay of anyone who has read those books or watched those movies, a recently-released groundbreaking scientific paper hints there are at least three scientists who didn’t see the film — or gleaned the completely wrong lesson from it.
Published in Current Biology, the paper boasts that researchers are genetically inducing fruit flies to have “virgin births” via parthenogenesis.
Parthenogenesis is a type of reproduction in which no male is needed for a female to produce an embryo. While virgin birth is uniquely singular in the human species, it is not uncommon in nature.
“Parthenogenesis is the most effective way to reproduce. In animals, doing sex is very complicated,” evolutionary biologist Tanja Schwander told Nature Portfolio.
To genetically alter these flying pests, scientists first sequenced different strains of a fly species. One was known to reproduce via parthenogenesis, the other was found to be incapable of it. Researchers then isolated the genes responsible for this trait. Finding the right combination of these, they were then able to activate this method of reproduction in an animal that would otherwise not be able to create offspring alone.
In a groundbreaking world first, they succeeded.
The parthenogenesis gene was activated in more than a tenth of the fruit flies. Even some of the offspring of these genetically edited creations were able to reproduce through the unique method. As Nature notes, agricultural pests often use this trait to rapidly reproduce and swarm fields.
While fruit flies are usually just an inconvenience, inducing this gene in other pests could potentially have disastrous results.
As the scientists in “Jurassic Park” found out, some things cannot be undone. We all know lab leaks are possible and that it would only take a minor oversight to accidentally release a gene edited locust, mosquito or wasp.
The world is barreling toward the point of no return.
To raise the stakes even higher on potential abuse of the tech, advanced gene editing techniques have been successfully applied to humans.
One Chinese scientists claims he used CRISPR-cas9, a tool for editing genes, to produce babies incapable of becoming infected with HIV.
Although the Chinese scientists was universally criticized for such a radical experiment on humans, his proving it could be done could act as an invite to unethical scientists and state interests to begin crafting human genetics to suit their own needs.
With nations ready to strike others with nuclear weapons, it’s not unreasonable to think an attempt would be made to create modified humans in an attempt to get ahead.
The pitfalls of this technology are abundantly clear, and the dangers so severe that even a science fiction author can only dream of them. As a species we must ensure a responsible use of these discoveries underlined by a basic acknowledgement on the inherent value of every human life.