Since it was on major news and aggregate sites yesterday, I can pretty much assume that all of the internet has seen yesterday’s story on the super mouse. Basically, researchers have found a way to genetically alter mice so that they have an astounding 10 times the normal number of mitochondria in their muscles! (Quick review: mitochondria are the fundamental energy plants of cells: they breakdown glucose from which they provide energy for all of the cell processes) These mice eat twice as much, but have half the body weight because they have almost no fat reserves. Recalling the movie Bladerunner you might think, “but they die at a young age, right?” Actually, they live longer than normal mice, and were still producing litters at three years of age – equivalent to over 80 years old in human terms.
So what are some possible ramifications? From the BBC article:
Other research groups have produced similar novel rodents by altering different aspects of their genetics. One criticism of the work is that it could open the door to abuse, with the spectre of athletes resorting to gene therapy to try to improve their performance.
But Professor Hanson played this down. “Right now, this is impossible to do – putting a gene into muscle. It’s unethical. And I don’t think you’d want to do this. These animals are rather aggressive, we’ve noticed.”
It makes the animals more aggressive? He thinks that is going to keep unscrupulous athletes from gene-doping? What hole has he been living in? This shows one of the major misgivings I have with medical research in general, and genetic research in specific: no thought for the consequences. The article briefly addresses the issue of athletes trying to gain a genetic advantage, but what about military applications? Who doesn’t think the pentagon or some other nation would pay top dollar for genetic ‘super soldiers’?
The truth of the matter is, no matter how much the public decries it as unethical, as soon as the technology becomes available there will be people trying to genetically engineer a ‘super soldier’ or a ‘super athlete.’ If nothing else, the sheer amount of money put into professional sports and military technology is an indicator that if the technology exists, there will be people willing to take the chance. You just have to genetically engineer a zygote, implant it into a surrogate mother from a 3rd world country who is willing to do such things for money, and have the baby brought to gestation at a facility in a ‘country of convenience’ (somewhere in eastern europe, SE asia, etc.). You now have your genetic superbaby. And what about when gene therapy through retroviruses becomes viable? You can bet there will be athletes willing to give it a chance.
Similarly, as soon as the technology to target and trigger genes for increased intelligence, beauty, immune system, etc. are found, there will be rich parents from all over the world willing to pay an exorbitant sum of money to ensure that their child is a perfect beautiful genius, no matter what laws may be in place to stop such genetic tampering. Even if you pass laws in the U.S. and other 1st-world nations, once the technology exists there will be clinics in India, Bulgaria, Georgia, and such places where the genetic treatment can be done.
I realize this technology has great potential to help cure all sorts of genetic and other health problems, but it really is a Pandora’s box. Professor Hanson’s statement seems incredibly naive to me. This is classic Pandora: he has too narrow of an idea of where and how his technology may be used or abused, and that others – even those with similar technical ability – may not share his sense of morality.