White privilege? Will Western activists block CRISPR solution to protecting millions of Africans against malaria?

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CRISPR technology can now wipe out a species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in Africa–but will the anti-GMO movement prevent scientists from saving millions of lives each year?

At least a million people die from malaria each year. Some put the estimates as high as 2.7 million. 90 percent of the deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa. 70 percent of the deaths are of children under 5.

You may have heard of CRISPR, a hot new gene-editing technology that allows scientists to specify a target (a specific sequence of DNA) and cut and edit that site. This has made gene editing cheaper, easier, faster and more specific than ever–and it’s opened a lot doors. For example, editing specific genes in cell lines to study disease; creating pools of gene deletion to learn more about cancer; and, notably, preventing disease-spreading organisms from spreading deadly pathogens. It looks something like this:

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And, interestingly, the idea for CRISPR came from something that was already happening in nature, anyway. If you want to hear the best explanation of CRISPR I’ve heard so far, it’s this one, via RadioLab:

A November 23, 2015 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) paper out of the University of California, Irvine used a controversial method called “gene drive” to ensure that Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes (which had been genetically modified to have malaria resistance) would pass their resistance down to all of their offspring. Models by Valentino Gantz et al. predicted that the malaria-resistant gene would completely pervade the wild population within ten generations — or, roughly, three to four months. Awesome!

Except, here’s the thing: malaria is highly adaptive. It’s crafty and sneaky and evolves quickly. Ten generations of mosquito reproduction may be enough for the plasmodium parasite (which causes malaria) to evolve resistance to the malaria-resistant mosquito, meaning that this amazing solution to one of the world’s most deadly diseases…could flop.

But today, a new paper in Nature Biotechnology revealed a new gene drive solution that could completely eliminate Anopheles gambiae, a different species of mosquito that spreads diseases across sub-Saharan Africa — without the dangerous use of pesticides. Here’s how it works:

The “goal” of any gene is to propagate itself–and it usually does this by improving the whole organism so it can have more reproductive success. But there are some naturally-occuring “selfish genes,” which propagate themselves, sometimes to the detriment of the species. They don’t benefit the organism as a whole, but they persist, because they benefit themselves.

(One example of this is a transposon, a chromosomal segment that can undergo transposition, especially a segment of bacterial DNA that can be translocated as a whole between chromosomal, phage, and plasmid DNA in the absence of a complementary sequence in the host DNA.)662949300

Because of CRISPR, we now have the ability to create “gene drives,” or artificial selfish genes. As long as the selfish gene doesn’t kill individuals right away, the selective advantage of the gene drive is so high that it doesn’t matter if it’s a detriment to the individual.

Using this principle, Hammond et al. determined what genes cause infertility in female (but not male) Anopheles gambiae — then edited the genes of male, creating a gene that causes infertility in females and can create two copies of itself in every offspring. In other words, the daddy gene cuts an allele in the mom’s DNA, and replaces it with his genetically modified one. If allowed to mate with the wild population, the engineered males will transmit the gene to wild females. All female offspring will be infertile, and all males offspring will keep passing on the gene drive to the wild-type females.

Because every offspring is a homozygote, this gene will sweep the population extremely quickly — and because the ultimate result is the elimination of the species, there is little chance the plasmodium parasite will evolve resistance.

Hence wiping out the species. Hence saving millions of Africans per year. Here’s an image from Scientific American:5485235_orig

Obviously, there are ethical concerns here. And we should think about them very carefully. Some people think wiping out an entire species is wrong — even though we’ve already wiped out malaria carrying mosquitos in both the U.S. and Italy. We’ve benefitted immensely from not having malaria here. Except the way we did it was with the massive use of DDT, which also killed other insects and birds. There was a huge negative environmental impact, which could be completely avoided using the gene drive/CRISPR method.

The ecological impact is also worth discussing. Every ecosystem is in a delicate balance. Eradicating a species could have effects that are hard to predict — for example, when sea otter populations began to decline in Alaska in the 1990s, sea urchin populations (sea otters’ primary prey) exploded, and began stripping large areas of kelp forests.

However, the human toll should be considered heavily in this debate. The cost of doing nothing — of having the technology to save lives, and sitting on it — is allowing millions of people to die each year we procrastinate implementing this technology. History has already shown the toll this can have.

Golden rice, which is enhanced to produce the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, was developed to prevent blindness and death in Asian populations. By 2002, animal testing had demonstrated zero health risks; financial interests had been handed over to a non-profit organization (meaning “big biotech” would not profit from its use); and the technology was in place to save millions of people from dying and thousands from going blind due to vitamin A-deficiency.

Yet golden rice is still not in use today, partly due to “efforts” by “activists” at Greenpeace that are not dissimilar from terrorism. Two agricultural economists, one from the University of California, Berkeley and one from the Technical University of Munich, have calculated the cost of this opposition, measured in human health. Their results are horrifying.285554377

Justus Wesselera, German agricultural economist and professor of Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and David Zilberman, Professor and Robinson Chair in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, estimate that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years between 2002 and 2013 This accounts not only for humans (mostly children) who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. Again, the majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

But here’s the most sickening thing, though. The people who oppose genetic modification are not starving Indian children. They are not African mothers whose children have all died of malaria. They’re not even scientists who have spent their lives studying genetics and intimately understand how the technology works.

They’re privileged white people in America and Europe. They have a stable food supply, doctors, medicine, and a relatively disease-free existence. They don’t have degrees in science — but they do shop at Whole Foods! Which, to them, means their ignorant, uninformed fears are more important than Black lives.

Police brutality in the U.S. sucks, and I sincerely hope the #BlackLivesMatter movement can help save the lives here at home. But right now, we have technology that can save millions of lives across the globe — and we need to figure out if, when and how to use it.

Please Tweet, Like, and Share this important information — but if you’re going to try to debate me in the comments, please back up your argument with data, science and scholarly research.

Co-written by Eva Glasrud (@thehappytalent), founder of Paved With Verbs, and Justin Smith (@justinsnoofer), a PhD student at Stanford University who is specializing in CRISPR.

This piece appeared originally on Glasrud’s blog, The Happy Talent, here.

  • abibrahim

    No. The antiGMO activists wont give up. Right now, some of them live in our midst, intermingling with the locals, having converted to local religion (predominantly islam), learned local language and are telling them it’s alright to continue to grow landraces, embrace poverty, grow organic crops, use alternative medicine etc. Because, you know, Monsanto. To a local Muslim farmer in northern Nigeria for example, no scientific evidence can be more convincing than a white Muslim man or woman dressed in local attire. It’s almost as if antiGMO movement is a therapy or some kind of religion to these activists, who never need the GMO anyway.

  • Dharma Galaxy

    Um…the obvious “unintended” consequence is an increasing human overpopulation problem.

    • agscienceliterate

      Are you saying that we should not combat malaria and other deadly diseases, because the consequences of doing so would be to permit increasing human overpopulation, rather than having disease-stricken people die? Please clarify.

      • agscienceliterate

        Actually, I have seen, in your other comments on other sites, on Muslims, that you are voting for Trump. I changed my mind. You don’t think you need to clarify more. You have made yourself perfectly clear.

        • agscienceliterate

          Your rhetoric is abominable. For other readers, in explanation, this is what “dharma” has said on other posts on other topics:

          —–
          Dharma Galaxy Montanagirl1 • 6 days ago

          I happen to be a completely monogamous heterosexual male, aged 63. I hope you die of AIDS.

      • Dharma Galaxy

        I wasn’t making a value judgement, except with regard to the people who made the original blind statement. Combatting Malaria is fine if it is combined with the kind of education which will bring down fertility — but doing the first without the second is a bad idea.

  • thefermiparadox

    Well said.

  • gmoeater

    Should Greenpeace (neither “green” nor “peace”-ful) be brought up before a war tribunal for their crimes against humanity, which have resulted in the deaths of millions of children? I know how I would answer that question.

    • ColoradoBrit

      You know how I would answer that question, too!

    • Jeremy Rawley

      Anti-GMO’ers need to check their privilege.

  • Jeremy Rawley

    Anti-GMO is a religion and Whole Foods a megachurch. There’s one key difference: GMO-panickers worship food, chemophobia, and a fantasy past that neither cannot nor does not exist. Christians worship a book written by a Bronze Age desert tribe who thought the Earth was flat, covered by a giant crystal dome, and supported by pillars over “the deep”. They believed that snakes and donkeys could talk, bats were birds, and whales were fish. They believed in unicorns, cockatrices, dragons, astrology, incantations, talismans, pyrotechnic potions, blood sacrifice (Gen. 8:20-22 and 22:10, Lev. 1-9, Judges 11:29-39, John 3:16), faith healing, ritual spells, divination, necromancy (Lazarus), and the five elements of witchcraft. They believed pi was a round number and rabbits chewed cud. They also believed that looking at a brass statue of a snake would heal snakebites, using a magic wand to sprinkle blood all over someone would cure leprosy, and displaying striped patterns to a pregnant cow would make it bear striped calves.

    These same ignorant savages, like the GMO-panickers, also utterly failed at creating a moral code. They condoned atrocities that would make the most hardened Blood, Crip, MS-13, Cosa Nostra, or Bratva gangster raise an eyebrow:

    –Forced starvation (Gen. 41:53-57)
    –Genocide (Gen. 6-7, Num. 31, Joshua 6:20 and 10:40, 1 Sam. 15:2-3, Zeph. 3:6, Matt. 24:37)
    –Rape (Deut. 21:11-14 and 22:23-29, Judges 19, 2 Sam. 13)
    –Pillage (Joshua 6:24)
    –Racism (Gen. 28:1, Num. 25:6-9)
    –Sexism (Gen. 3:16 and 7:2, Luke 2:23, 1 Peter 3:1-7, 1 Tim. 2:11-15, Titus 2:4-5, 1 Cor. 11:3-13, Romans 1:27, Col. 3:18)
    –Homophobia (Lev. 18:22)
    –Transphobia (Deut. 22:5)
    –Disproportionate punishment (Ex. 20:5, Deut. 23:2)
    –Slavery (Gen. 9:20-25, Ex. 21-23 and 27:3-7, Lev. 25:44-46, Ruth 4:10, 1 Peter 2:18, Titus 2:9-10, Col. 3:22, Eph. 6:5)
    –Slave abuse (Ex. 21:26-27, Proverbs 29:19, Luke 12:46-47)
    –Child abuse (Ex. 21:15-17, Deut 21:18-21, Psalms 137:9, Proverbs 19:18, Mark 7:9-10, Hebrews 12:7, Col. 3:20)
    –Ableism (Lev. 21:17-23)
    –Religious fascism (just about the whole Bible)

    Why? To justify their own inhumanity by claiming to do the will of God/Allah/YHWH! Religious nuts and anti-GMO’ers are both overprivileged zealots. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Pat Robertson, Vandana Shiva, Vani Hari, Gilles-Eric Séralini, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Mehmet Oz all have more similar ethical and moral codes than most people are willing to admit!

    • Hollif50

      And your point would be? I don’t get the sense YOU”VE evolved much either..

      • Stuart M.

        He is saying the anti-GMO cause is faith-based, not scientific. And to avoid admitting they believe in crap, the anti-GMOers would rather sacrifice the poor Africans and Asians on the altar to their organic god.

        • Hollif50

          So what you’re both saying is: You don’t believe in God or the Bible, all man’s problems stem from believing in God, people like you have ALL the answers -(hence you want to now be God )- and if you were just totally in charge you’d fix up the world- and it would be pure utopia with genetically engineered and altered everything,….. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!! The last time we had a round of people like you, they gave the world people like Lenin, Stalin, and Pol Pot. These guys killed off about 60-70 million people in their quest to build a better world without religion..

          • Errg…nope. That is not what is meant here. What is said here is that the anti-GMO crowd reasons the same way as religious people, with their worldview based on superstitions and faith, not on hard facts and logic. No one here is saying that they would have all the answers. But not having all the answers doesn’t mean one should turn to an imaginary friend who’s never ever showed any proof of its existence, not a single sign, despite billions of human being praying to it every day for the last 10’000 years! Actually, the scientific method and a logical approach to our universe implemented over the last 300 years have yielded a lot more answers than thousands of superstitions!

          • Hollif50

            And yet all this world’s civilizations are based on this faith in a supreme being. I rather have that “faith’ than what you’re trying to serve up; which is squat”. Let me know when you athiests and GMO worshipers build your first great university or actually do something that benefits mankind……Crickets…

          • JP

            Is this guy serious?

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Sounds like someone who ought to be on a watch list of religious extremists. Just sayin’

          • Well, it seems like you’ve missed the last 200 years of scientific and technological advancements, that have made it possible, at least in industrialized countries, what 10’000 years of religious predominance hasn’t been able to accomplish:
            – feed the whole population (when was the last time you feared starvation because all the crops have been lost?),
            – double people’s average lifespan (from 40 years old, where it had been stagnating since the first days of agriculture, to 85 years old nowadays),
            – provide 90% of the population with living standards that were affordable only by about 20% of the populations before mass production and industrialization.
            – develop medical treatments for thousands of health problems from which people would simply die, often in drove in case of contamination, sometimes in horrendous suffering (when was the last time you feared for your or your family’s life because of flu, cold, injury with potential infection, polio, smallpox, whooping caugh, appendicitis, etc.). Or they might survive, but with heavy sequels, making them sometimes unable to participate in social and daily activities for the rest of their pretty short life! Do you know what was the rate of death in labour and number of children who died before reaching the age of 1 or 2 years old? It was huge. Famous composer and musician, Johannes Sebastian Bach, had 3 wives (not at the same time, one after the other, since they actually died from diseases or in child labour) and 20 children! Only 2 survived long enough to become adults! And this wasn’t an exceptional case. This was the normal destiny for most families until the mid-19th century!

            But I guess, you take your nice material comfort so much for granted that you don’t even realize anymore what you owe to those damn atheists and science worshipers!

          • Hollif50

            Oh, athiests did all that? Or is it: People from all walks of life, all political persuasions, and all religious persuasions did all that? You seem to imply that no researcher, scientist, distinguished politician, gifted administrator, doctor, or any other notable, not to mention all the helpers that made these accomplishments possible; could/or can ever be religious..BTW: You also seem to be very full of yourself; which is, IMHO: not warranted. I say this since you, and the people you seem to be trying represent; are trying to take credit for things that are merely part of the history of human advancement through the ages.. ….

          • Oh? So, now you realize that our civilization is the results of the actions of people from all venues? That is good, because what you said was that “all of this world’s civilizations are based on this faith in a supreme being” and you heavily implied that atheists and GMO (or science) worshipers had accomplished nothing or at least, nothing noticeable next to what religion had accomplished. So, I just reminded you what science has made possible over the last 200 years that religion hasn’t over the last 10’000 years.

            By the way, I never said nor implied that scientists and all the other types of people involved in the scientific and technological advancements of our societies were all atheists. You’re the one who’s been equating atheism and science, and then opposing science and religion, not me. Actually, you decided that all of us here are atheists, without the any shred of evidences! However, it is quite clear that atheism and modern science have walked hands in hands. But that doesn’t mean that all scientists are atheists, nor that they are all religious either.

            By the way, I’m not trying to represent anyone but myself, nor am I’ taking credits for anything. I’m merely attributing the credits to where it is due and most of your present material confort is indeed due to scientific and technological advancements, which have allowed mass industrialization to happen. Saying that it is “merely part of the history of human advancement through the ages” sounds completely hollow and in the end says nothing meaningful. Actually, it is…what was the word you used earlier to define whoever I’m supposed to serve? Oh, yes, squat. That last bit of yours was completely squat. Moreover, your tone has been so condescending from your very first message that I can tell you that if there is a person coming off as really full of herself here, it’s you. And of course, not only your tone, but also all your completely baseless accusatory assumptions about us are totally unwarranted!

  • Rob H.

    Yep, they sure will. They did it with DDT.

  • Hollif50

    It’s always interesting that some like to cite “white privilege” and other nonsense when they are demanding that the very same whites pay for everything…

    • Oh? And how are they asking the “same whites” to pay for everything? Everything what, by the way? To my knowledge, African and Asisan scientists and institutions are also involved in the development of these biotechnologies to be used in their countries! Or did you just read the title and fired off immediately?

  • mike4ty4

    Well, if the people of Africa want this to be implemented there, then it should go ahead and be implemented, provided suitable science can be done that shows any effect from removing the mosquito would not have so severe a knock-on that it would kill more than malaria does. The African peoples are the ones who should and must have the primary right to decide the course their history is supposed to take, not the West. That’s what it means to give up the “white privilege”.

  • Farmer with a Dell

    This CRISPR application is an exquisite extension of the age-old and time-honored sterile insect technique:

    http://www.fao.org/News/1998/sit-e.htm

    The beauty of the CRISPR method is it is self perpetuating and permanent. The equivalent of spaying female mosquitoes without capture and manual surgery. How long have animal rights activists advocated sterilization to reduce overpopulation of everything from nuisance deer to rabid foxes?

    But now activists suddenly oppose humanely controlling mosquito populations. Not because they prefer vast swarms of disease-carrying mosquitoes but because they prefer Africans continue to suffer and die from malaria. Activists are more concerned about keeping the human population in check than the insect population!

    This appears to be a logical extension of the activist’s war against select humans different from themselves. Norman Borlaug’s vast contributions to humanity contrast this attitude when modern day “greens” savage him for facilitating the green revolution, which fed literally billions of people who would otherwise have gone hungry with millions of those, especially children, starving to death. Activists claim the green revolution should never have been unleashed, they insist “those people” should have suffered genocide, ostensibly at the hand of Mother Nature. It is no coincidence those afflicted people would have black, brown and yellow complexions — that makes the intended genocide actually ethnic cleansing. And that is the activist agenda here in the developed world. Simply ghoulish.

  • Ray E.

    The vector species for malaria in the US (Anopheles quadrimaculatus) was not wiped out using DDT. DDT was used to suppress and repel populations long enough to interrupt the life cycle of the plasmodium that causes malaria.

    History as documented by the CDC is here:

    >>It consisted primarily of DDT application to the interior surfaces of rural homes or entire premises in counties where malaria was reported to have been prevalent in recent years. By the end of 1949, more than 4,650,000 house spray applications had been made. It also included drainage, removal of mosquito breeding sites, and spraying (occasionally from aircrafts) of insecticides. Total elimination of transmission was slowly achieved. In 1949, the country was declared free of malaria as a significant public health problem.<>Two recent outbreaks of locally acquired, mosquito-transmitted malaria in Virginia in 1998 and 2002 demonstrate the continued risk of endemic mosquito-transmitted malaria in heavily populated areas of the eastern United States. Increasing immigration, growth in global travel, and the presence of competent anopheline vectors throughout the eastern United States contribute to the increasing risk of malaria importation and transmission. On August 23 and 25, 2002, Plasmodium vivax malaria was diagnosed in 2 teenagers in Loudoun County, Virginia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deemed these cases to be locally acquired because of the lack of risk factors for malaria, such as international travel, blood transfusion, organ transplantation, or needle sharing.<<

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16033121

  • Chris Green

    Good article well done. It is sad that those with privileged backgrounds and full plates of food find knowledge and the appliance of science unpalatable because it may belong to a company. They bleat yet are yet to provide viable solutions.