Re: Designer Symbiots

Robert J. Bradbury (
Sun, 10 Oct 1999 10:45:35 -0700 (PDT)

On Sat, 9 Oct 1999, Ken Clements wrote:

> Re: nanochondria

Ken, if you have some pointers to these papers I would like to read about them.

> Re: comments on E. coli that synthesize vitamins or suppress toxic
> enzymes.

I see no real problems here except having the tools to do these things. I'm not sure if all of the enzymes to do vitamin synthesis are known. I think we only recently cloned the pathway for producing Vitamin A and that it was being put into Rice.

You have a potential problem that it would be preferable for E. coli need to export them into the gut. I know that we do get some of our vitamins (esp. B-12) now from our bacteria but am unsure whether this is a symbiotic relationship (they give us the vitamins in return for a nice home) or whether we actually are consuming the bacteria to harvest the vitamins [violence in our gut, news at 11... :-)].

A simplified discussion is at:

> Of course, there would be some difficulties. First comes the general
> acceptance of anything that is genetically engineered.

Well, if you point out the fact that people consume Acidophilus milk or natural (live) yogurt, the only thing you have to get over is the GE hurdle. Since we have been eating "passive" GE food (selected for traits we like such as insect resistance due to higher levels of "natural" pesticides) for years the only difference is in moving to "active" GE food. I think in this debate it is important to *stress* that anyone who isn't an primitive individual living off of what they can dig, harvest or hunt in a forrest or a savanna *is* on the slippery slope of "engineered" products. If you can get them to agree that that is the case they are going to have to squirm a little to justify what "interventions" by man they allow and what "interventions" they reject. [The "acceptance of everything we have previously engineered but nothing new" position doesn't cut it in my opinion...]

If they classify "GE" as putting genes into plants that were never there in the first place, it is useful to point out that nature *does* this *all* the time. One of the primary vehicles used to carry genes into plants is a *natural* plant virus (Agrobacterium tumifaciens) that *nature* designed to do that. All we do with GE is speed the process up -- if you wait long enough nature would probably transfer all genes into all organisms (whether they survive would be depend on whether it provided a selective advantage).

So -- what the GE luddites presumably want natural "unconscious" evolution. [It is interesting in the whole Monarch butterfly vs. bt-toxin engineered plants debate that I don't think anyone has discussed the ethics involved -- why is it ok for a plant to "naturally" evolve toxins that kill butterflys but is it not ok for humans to engineer such plants? It is interesting to consider the "life-cycle" of locusts. I suspect that if they were present every year the plants would rapidly evolve a defense. However since they only come back infrequently the plants lack the necessary selection pressure to evolve locust killing toxins.]

> Then there is the fear that something living inside of you may
> mutate to be unsafe.

Generally speaking "lab" E-coli are pretty soft in the natural world (they have evolved for the "soft" life). I'd say you were more at risk for your natural bacteria mutating (all 40 trillion of them...).

> One would not expect the vitamin companies to be too happy about this
> new development.

Yep, vitamin companies are a big industry. The quantity of Vitamin C produced each year is huge (e.g. Takeda prduces 20,000 tons annually). However you can assume that they are working on cloning these genes and putting them into plants if they think it will lower their production costs.

Then you can always bring people into an interesting discussion -- Whould you rather have your vitamins produced by "natural" bacteria living in your body or would you rather have them produced by big corporations in large potentially environmentally damaging chemical plants?

[Most, if not all, chemical plants produce products at high temperatures to speed up the reactions so they presumably are all contributing to global warming.]

> Could we get going this way? Do you think this is a valuable step?

We are presumably on the road.

> Would the existing research community fund it?

It is already. Though not to the degree something like cancer research is. With the exception of HIV (too much) or Aging (too little), where political activities and poor perception, respectively, create significant distortions, the (govt) research dollars are distributed to a large degre in relation to the [perceived] size of the problem.

> Do you think the political problems will be solvable?

As I point out above if you apply education and rational thought to the problem(s), you either get people to accept the ideas or conclude that they are irrational.

> If not, what human modification will be accepted, and when?

If you look at the cosmetic surgery industry I think you can find a number of examples of what "human modifications" are currently accepted. If you talk to two of my brothers who had to have their knees done after walking became extremely painful you have another example of acceptable "modifications".

As I've tried to point out with OWB, when the benefits are demonstrable and concrete and impact you where it counts (in the wallet or in your quality of life) people will flock to them. [Most] People don't object to vaccines or toilets or surcharges on their sewar bills to pay for the treatment plants (with the bacteria) to clean up their waste stream before returning it to nature. Demonstrable, "unnatural" things that contribute to our health and well-being in environmentally friendly ways (and don't cost "too" much will succeed). The problem with a lot of GE now is that the cost-benefit balance isn't very good.