There is something unnatural about genetic engineering that alarms most members of the public. Even without a full appreciation of the potential problems that genetic modification could produce, Joe Public doesn’t like the idea of scientist’s playing God. That’s how most people refer to this new field. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong about inserting the genes of one life form into another.
There are indeed potential problems with genetic modification (GM) as one has to be careful not to produce unforeseen mutations that have negative consequences. One of the problems of GM is that it by-passes the longer, winnowing processes of natural selection where diversity emerges within the context of an environment of competing life forms. It’s the laboratory equivalent of importing cane toads to Australia that have no natural predator and then discovering decades later that your environment is overrun with these reviled amphibians.
However, I don’t think the general public are primarily concerned by the problem of unforeseen consequences but rather people are appalled by the transformation of life forms in principle. There is something very wrong about mixing different life forms or at least that’s how the public view it.
I think that this concern reflects a naïve essentialist belief that species are categorically different from each other. This biological essentialism emerges early in child development and before children have been educated about genes and DNA. Rather, our naïve biological reasoning leads us to draw a distinction between life forms by inferring some deeper mechanism that makes life essentially different from each other.
This week we learn that Japanese scientists have bred GM monkeys with feet that glow fluorescent green under ultraviolet light. This is because they have had the green fluorescent protein (GFP) marker gene inserted. Why might you ask do we need transgenic marmosets with feet that glow fluorescent green in the first place? The answer is that GFP can be used as a marker to track the effects of genetic manipulation. Last year’s Nobel prize was given to the scientist who discovered and developed the GFP marker technique.
I would imagine that most of the general public would probably have no particularly concern about this study as the research seems so academic. However, I bet there would be more public outcry if they knew that the GFP was originally isolated from a jellyfish. This jellyfish gene has been successfully used with many different plants and animals but the marmoset study is the first time that primates have produced offspring that carry the GM trait allowing a colony of transgenic animals to be produced.
The idea of plants and primates having jellyfish genes seems so unnatural but then that simply reflects our misunderstanding of what genes are. Our naïve biological essentialism simply does not easily allow for the concept that all life forms share a common set of genes. Humans may share around 98.5% of their genetic make-up with our closest cousin the chimpanzee but we also share around 50% with a banana. That just doesn’t seem right.
Maybe the mother of one of the twin marmosets agreed as she bit it to death. Or maybe the Japanese mother marmoset mistook the glowing green feet for wasabi.