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Saturday, 26 February 2011

What are the dangers of genetically modified viruses?

A virus
Most people never stop to consider the dangers of genetic engineering technique, they just expect it to make pretty babies, correct genetic diseases or create little-eating and fast growing cattle, but men in the street hardly ever take time to look into the technology itself.

The bottom line is that external genetic material is introduced into the host cells (say, GM corn grain) by means of either specially crafted viruses, called viral vector, or bacteria like E-coli that assimilate well foreign DNA, carrying the genes in question precisely because virus has the ability to reproduce and invade other organisms (and bacteria multiply exponentially) — otherwise viruses would be useless.
The increased virulence of E-coli epidemics (and infections in general) in the 20th century could have been caused by such specially crafted bacteria.

Now, if such virus or bacteria escape or are released from the lab (so that the Big Pharma can later make huge profits from selling vaccines) no-one knows what harmful effects it can have on humans, since these artificial organisms are totally unfamiliar to our immune system.
‘Genetic engineering is used to create animal models of human diseases.
(I don't believe anything achieved through torturing living creatures can be really beneficial for humans).
Genetically modified mice are the most common genetically engineered animal model. They have been used to study and model cancer (the so-called onco-mouse), obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, substance abuse, anxiety, aging and Parkinson disease, to name but few. Potential cures can be tested against these mouse models. On top of it, genetically modified pigs have been bred with the aim of increasing the success of pig to human organ transplantation',
which means that modified virus is more likely to jump the species, that is, cross biological barriers. I wonder if this was the origin of Swine and bird flu.

Anyway, a few will be “cured” and millions killed.

Even though all these vague hypothetical benefits became real one day, the problem is that it's humans who work in the labs, and humans make mistakes (not to mention all the evil purposes these technology could be used for), so there's enough likelihood, additionally backed up by my lifelong observations, of a virus escaping from a lab to stop me from sharing gung ho technologists’ peace of mind. You see, it's just a question of common sense, but someone rightly said that sense isn’t common.

Several instances reportedly occured in some communist countries (apparently in mid sixties), which of course was never made public.

What I never managed to figure out is where viruses actually come from. Hepatitis B, HUSL, HIV, etc.

As an aside, wild as it sounds, I start to suspect human body (the first host) itself produces viruses and then passes them on to other humans, the same probably being true for plants and animals. A piece of DNA detaches from the host for some unaccountable reason, moves on to become a virus for another unaccountable reason, and then jumps from host to host.

Here’s a little insight into the technique and its potential.

Viral assembly.
Lee et al. (2002) reported using genetically engineered M13 bacteriophage viruses to create quantum dot biocomposite structures. As a background to this work, it has previously been shown that genetically engineered viruses can recognize specific semiconductor surfaces through the method of selection by combinatorial phage display. Additionally, it is known that liquid crystalline structures of wild-type viruses (Fd, M13, and TMV) are adjustable by controlling the solution concentrations, solution ionic strength, and the external magnetic field applied to the solutions. Consequently, the specific recognition properties of the virus can be used to organize inorganic nanocrystals, forming ordered arrays over the length scale defined by liquid crystal formation. Using this information, Lee et al. (2000) were able to create self-assembled, highly oriented, self-supporting films from a phage and ZnS precursor solution. This system allowed them to vary both the length of bacteriophage and the type of inorganic material through genetic modification and selection.
I guess, once the self-assemble has been triggered the film literally builds itself, and so far the boffins have presumably managed to stop it at will. But what happens if they fail to and such nanodevices are released into the environment? Can anyone predict what kind of reaction such totally alien structure would provoke in humans or animals for that matter?
Draw your conclusions.

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  1. Some of the arguments you presented were true, but the only problem faced with those problems is they may have not been caused by genetic engineering, per say. Most of the time, it is a coincidence of what happens. Also, being smuggling viruses from labs and causing bad things to happen is not a problem of genetic engineering, it is the problem of security.

    But, nice post.

    1. Thanks for commenting.
      First, I don't believe in this kind of coincidences (how come they're always negative?) — what accounts for so many weird viruses popping out of the thin air?
      Is it some kind of spontaneous genesis?
      Has any scientist ever bothered to put forward a meaningful explanation? Has anyone ever asked them to?

      Second, “smuggling viruses from labs and causing bad things to happen is not a problem of genetic engineering, it is the problem of security” — this kind of reasoning scares the hell out of me.
      It’s along the lines of what scientists without ethics or scruples say: I invent potentially deadly things, but I don’t give a damn about what you do with them.
      Causing collateral damage and then passing the buck to security issues is pure hypocrisy, because I don’t think anyone in his right mind is naïve enough to believe that humans can ensure 100% safety of genetic engineering (which is a perversion in itself, at least in apes’ hands).

      We love playing God, but the truth is, we don’t control even our own inner workings. Apart from negligence, accidents, natural disasters or smuggling, there’s also a high probability of deliberately creating the viruses for all kinds of criminal groups, which means giving yet another unprecedentedly powerful tool of mass destruction to pathological psychopaths, so whoever creates such tools is their partner in crime.

      I guess you would see the whole thing in a different light, if you tried imagining yourself as a part of collateral damage, say, dying of some epidemic caused by such virus (of course you’d be told it was a “coincidence”).
      Anyway, I’m glad you liked the post. ;-)


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