Attack of the killer clones

Whenever I think about how much I hate the Daily Mail and all its works, I force myself to remember that, alone amongst the populist press, it was the Mail that fought most consistently and vehemently to keep the appalling miscarriage of justice surrounding the Stephen Lawrence case in front of the British public. And so the fact that the Mail was last week doing its not inconsiderable bit to stoke up hysteria and misinformation on the great cloning scandal is no reason in itself to suppose that there is nothing amiss here.

First things first. In case any of my scientifically literate followers should fear that I’ve gone completely off the rails, let’s make it clear that eating the flesh, or drinking the milk, of the offspring of cloned parents is about as likely to harm you as a mosquito landing on your car is likely to dent it. So no, there is no connection between cloning and zombies, nor are cloned animals in some way an artificial life form, nor is your sleep at any great risk of being disturbed by demented cows with cloned parents squirting you with radioactive milk. There is no need to have nightmares, unless you enjoy them.

That is not what’s wrong with agricultural cloning. What is wrong with agricultural cloning is that, apart from being utterly unnecessary, it contributes yet more to our already dangerous reliance on a very narrow genetic base for our food. It is the livestock equivalent of monoculture. Should some disease develop that devastates our food plants and animals – and that is not exactly an unlikely prospect since it’s happened many times before – it will be genetic variability that we’ll rely on to deal with it. Identical genotypes will have identical fallibilities. And that’s not scaremongering, it’s science.

For reasons that entirely escape me, and that certainly escape scientific logic, many of those who have been mocking the clone-scare are then going on to say that people who believe that cloning is the work of the devil are the same people that believe genetic modification is wrong, and they in turn are the same people that have no scientific understanding, and are simply romantic Luddites determined to prevent scientific advance from saving the world. Well, some of those opposed to direct genetic modification may take that position simply because they believe everything the Daily Mail publishes, and because they lack any technical knowledge. If so, please don’t tar us all with the same brush.

I spent some part of my youth enquiring into the genetics of the wintergreen. I shouldn’t need to offer that sort of justification by association, but I probably do if I want any scientist to bother reading any further. I am sure that my knowledge of genetics is in advance of that of Mr and Mrs Joe Public. But I’m still very opposed to GM. Let me offer a few reasons from a variety of perspectives.

First, political and economic. GM is more about patents and selling technology than it is about saving the human race from starvation. Genetically modifying an organism to be resistant to a herbicide manufactured by the same company locks farmers into that company’s products. It makes 3rd world farmers dependent on 1st world technology companies. And it narrows the genetic pool still further as I’ve touched on already.

Second, ecological. GM proponents are constantly saying that novel genes are not capable of spreading into wild populations, or even into non-GM crops. We heard last week that every sample of wild canola in the US has GM markers from the GM canola grown ubiquitously in that country. It matters not whether this particular transference has any deleterious effects, but it is surely not over-imaginative to wonder about the transference of herbicide or pest resistance into wild populations. That is not the impossible scenario that the GM-mongers have constantly insisted that it is.

Third, general ignorance. I will cheerfully cut the throat of the next person who tells me that since we’ve been genetically modifying organisms since time immemorial via selective breeding, GM is just more of the same. That’s like saying that because we’ve been dying naturally since the beginning of time, my new technique of killing people with a sub-machine gun is merely a more technically advanced way of continuing the same old process. When plants or animals are bred traditionally, the kind of ensuing genetic change is strictly circumscribed. If I smear elephant sperm on the styles of wheat flowers, I’ll have to do it for a rather long time, like eternity, before wheat starts growing big flappy ears. I use an analogy from computing. I’ve spent a lot of time designing database interfaces for front-line staff. The point of them is to ensure the integrity of the data held in the system. The user interface prevents access to some bits of data, controls what kind of new data can be added, makes sure that it’s complete, prevents people randomly deleting stuff by mistake, amongst other similar control activities. DNA is like the data. The species barrier is like the interface. There is no genetic free-for-all. A database that consists of “naked” data in a spreadsheet is not going to stay fit for purpose for long. This is my fundamental concern about GM, and it’s not based on ignorance, nor on a phobia of technology, nor on being seduced by Daily Mail hysteria.

It’s very worrying how easily led up the garden path many of our fellow citizens are when the topic turns to science. But greater scientific literacy might not have the consequences that the GM and cloning vested interests expect. It might just make their special pleading more obvious.

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3 thoughts on “Attack of the killer clones

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Attack of the killer clones « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. I think I’m of the view that the ‘protection’ that you proffer for the species barrier via your database analogy happens at a lower level. That’s to say that the way DNA is transcribed and expressed means that usually it doesn’t work – the engineered organism either shows no sign of having incorporating the target gene or is not viable. Bacteria seem to have dispensed with the fussiness about what DNA they transcribe and pick it up from the environment to play with.

    Perhaps this viewpoint of mine comes from picking up my genetics knowledge from Dawkins, who has a fairly gene-centric view of the natural world.

    At the risk of having my throat cut 😉 Lack of genetic diversity is a particular problem in agricultural crops (potato, banana) because of the standard means of propagation for these crops and the diversity of the underlying species (i.e. the damn things don’t grow true from seed). The animal equivalent of this is inbreeding where conventional breeding leads to congenital problems in dog breeds and I think also in broiler chickens (weak legs due to over-rapid growth) and dairy cows.

    My concern with cloning (and other reproductive technology, particularly for people) is that we don’t do much follow up on the potential for long term development problems when introducing new methods, or the longer term welfare for the animal.

    • On the cloning business, although I agree that it’s been conventional breeding that’s done most of the narrowing of the genetic base, maintaining the diversity of variants (or, in other words, “heritage and rare breeds”) is much more important than a concession to sentimental nostalgia. Cloning is yet another move towards standardisation and further restriction of genetic variance, not even taking into account the other potentially serious consequences that you mention.

      On the GM issue, and my computing analogy, of course it’s true that “primitive” organisms such as unicellular or viral species have a much more laissez-faire approach to DNA exchange both intra and extra species. At the risk of pushing my analogy beyond its useful limit, bacteria would be equivalent to a simple one-column spreadsheet, for which a UI would be an unnecessary and over-the-top addition of pointless complexity. But a multi-table database with loads of columns and relational tables expressed merely through linked spreadsheets would never survive the depredations of user ineptitude! A UI would be vital for its integrity and utility. So it’s hardly a surprise that higher organisms have indeed evolved highly complex and restrictive breeding mechanisms to protect their much more complex genetic data. To treat their DNA as if it were the DNA of a virus or bacterium is rash beyond description, and that is at the root of my scepticism, and of my anxiety, about GM.

      As for Dawkins, his reductionist genetic model is as unsatisfactory as his reductionist human model. We may have a good understanding of the “one gene, one specific protein” model of inheritance, but we also know that the interactions between genes and their products are hugely more complex than that model implies, and only very poorly understood. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Understanding the alphabet, and how letters code words, is not a sufficient basis for understanding Shakespeare. Nor is sequencing DNA a sufficient basis for playing around with genetics.

      I accept that you may disagree with my analysis, but I hope I’ve at least given the lie to the slander that all those who doubt the wisdom and the utility of GM are ignorant of science, and simple-minded technophobes awash with nostalgia!

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