Can We Genetically Engineer the Wilderness? Should We?

There’s a new way to edit DNA. It’s called CRISPR, and it’s taking science by storm. Its versatility and speed have led scientists to explore all sorts of uses for it. One of the most radical ideas--proposed today in a pair of papers–is to use it to alter the DNA of species we want to get rid of. Think of malaria-bearing mosquitoes, bat-killing fungi, and the like. It’s a provocative idea, but does it threaten to do more harm than good? I take a look at the issue in my new “Matter” column for the New York Times. Check it out.

4 thoughts on “Can We Genetically Engineer the Wilderness? Should We?

  1. Someone has to say it: It should only be used to save the planet from Homo sapiens sapiens.

    [CZ: The authors point out that it would take centuries for CRISPR to work on a long-lived species like humans, which would be ample time to stop its spread should anyone try this.]

  2. An obvious question – could this be used to reverse antibiotic resistance in bacteria?

    [CZ: No. The species has to reproduce sexually in order for CRISPR to “drive” genes to high frequency.]

  3. You say that CRISPR requires sexual reproduction – what about species that engage both asexual and sexual reproductive mechanisms?

    [CZ: The more sex they have, the faster CRISPR will drive the genes.]

  4. Take a look at this essay in light of Carl’s second question “should we engineer the wilderness?” I don’t know the answer to the question either, but this suggests a resounding “Yes” and the essay presents a strong case:

    “Environmentalists say: “From now on we should limit ourselves.” Postenvironmentalists exclaim: “From now on, we should stop flagellating ourselves and take up explicitly and seriously what we have been doing all along at an ever-increasing scale, namely, intervening, acting, wanting, caring.” For environmentalists, the return of unexpected consequences appears as a scandal (which it is for the modernist myth of mastery). For postenvironmentalists, the other, unintended consequences are part and parcel of any action.”

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