Podcast: Nature makes ‘GMO’ fish; Biology and gender; Curing sickle cell with CRISPR

3d render of sickle cell anemia blood cells. Credit: Meletios Verras/iStock
3d render of sickle cell anemia blood cells. Credit: Meletios Verras/iStock
Anti-GMO groups have long warned about the dangers of AquaBounty’s genetically engineered salmon. But as it turns out, transgenic fish probably evolved naturally long ago, according to a new study. Should scientists cease their efforts to find a biological basis for gender? A CRISPR-based therapy for sickle cell anemia is going into clinical trials, moving the potentially life-saving treatment closer to commercialization.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

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With the commercialization of AquaBounty’s fast-growing salmon imminent, some anti-GMO groups have doubled down on their warnings that the ‘unnatural’ fish poses a risk to the environment. But as it turns out, transgenic fish may have evolved naturally. A March 2021 study published in Trends in Genetics argues that rainbow smelt stole the antifreeze gene that helps them survive icy coastal waters from herring roughly 20 million years ago. The research adds to a growing body of evidence that mother nature made ‘GMOs’ before any scientists ever thought it possible.

How should we think about gender? As our knowledge of human biology grows and the political debate over transgender rights evolves, the question has proved difficult to answer. According to a 2015 literature review, “there is increasing evidence of a biological basis for gender identity,” and preliminary research has pinpointed gene variants “implicated in the growth of brain cells or the production of sex hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone” that could influence gender identity.

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While research of this sort could “change physicians’ perspective on transgender medicine and improve health care for these patients,” other commentators argue that this whole project is a dangerous example of biological essentialism that may undermine acceptance of trans people. As a result, efforts to uncover a biological influence on gender identity need to be reevaluated, and perhaps even ended.

Caused by mutations that affect the production of hemoglobin, sickle cell disease distorts the shape of red blood cells, blocking blood flow throughout the body. It’s incredibly painful and can result in a number of very dangerous complications, including stroke, spleen damage, infection and vision problems. For now the only cure is a bone marrow transplants, but scientists are currently trialing a CRISPR-based therapy that removes one of the defective genes and replaces it with a fully functioning one. The treatment, if successful, could help thousands of people lead healthier lives.

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Related article:  Podcast: Media's COVID hypocrisy; Mandatory vaccines; Biodegradable plastic from GM plants

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Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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