Genetic Engineering

DNA for Terrorism

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted September 15, 2008 in DNA and the Law, Genetic Engineering

 image for id L0029724New Scientist reports that the Industry Association of Synthetic Biology (IASB) will begin issuing a seal of approval for members to post on their websites which will show that the companies screen their orders for potentially dangerous DNA sequences. The US National Science Advisory Board had been concerned about the potential for terrorists to purchase synthetic DNA to create deadly viruses.

In order to reduce the the chances of bioterrorism using commercially available genetic engineering, IASB committed to:

  1. An anonymized survey of industrially produced and delivered genes
  2. A sequence database accessible for all companies involved in gene synthesis that will help to identify orders requiring closer scrutiny

In related news, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last week the city ranks only 21st out of 54 eligible states and cities in the amount of funding for bioterrorism prevention despite the city being the number one target for terrorists. The mayor said funding is allocated irrespective of the risk for terrorist attack.

Because of the anthrax episodes in 2001, New York is one of only a handful of places in the nation that’s ever experienced a bio-terror attack. Yet in Fiscal Year 2008, we received $2.72 per capita, putting us an incredible 21st out of 54 eligible states and cities.

For more about bioterrorism, see previous Eye on DNA posts – Beware of Genetic Bioviolence and Could Altering DNA in Bacteria Post a Terrorist Threat?

Photo credit: Wellcome Library, 1927 Anthrax poster

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Seven Deadly Sins of Genetics

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted March 10, 2008 in DNA Fun, Genetic Engineering

pope snow globeAs I mentioned earlier today, the Roman Catholic church has updated its original 1500-year-old list of seven deadly sins with another seven. Genetic engineering is now on the list and I thought I’d help out in case the Vatican wanted to add another seven pertaining specifically to genetics.

2008 list of 14 deadly sins:

  1. Pride
  2. Envy
  3. Gluttony
  4. Lust
  5. Anger
  6. Greed
  7. Sloth
  8. Carrying out experiments on humans
  9. Polluting the environment
  10. Causing social injustice
  11. Causing poverty
  12. Becoming obscenely wealthy
  13. Taking drugs
  14. Genetic modification

Additional 7 deadly sins of genetics:

  1. Aiding and abetting people who use information from their personal genomes for improving their lives
  2. Believing that genes are deterministic
  3. Equating genetic knowledge with eugenics (ahem, Annalee Newitz)
  4. Making up genetic testing results, see paternity test huckster Simon Mullane
  5. Participating in or conducting research on genetics
  6. Running a DNA testing company
  7. Writing a blog about genetics, genomics, and DNA

Beware, all you sinners!

Recycle or go to Hell, warns Vatican – Telegraph
Seven new deadly sins: are you guilty? – Times Online
Thou shalt not commit a genetic experiment –



Genetically Engineered Mice Flex and Fluoresce

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted November 5, 2007 in Genetic Engineering

Genetically engineered mice captured everyone’s imagination and paranoia last week. First, supermice were created that are able to:

  1. Run longer and faster
  2. Eat 60 percent more food but not gain weight
  3. Live longer
  4. Have a longer breeding life

brainbowThen, news of mice genetically engineered to have brain neurons that can fluoresce in 90 different colors amazed everyone. These “brainbows” are the result of four color-producing genes and will make it easier to study neuronal circuits. In this Science Friday podcast, Ira Flatow interviewed Dr. Jeff Lichtman, one of the researchers who developed the Brainbow technique. (Click play to listen.)

powered by ODEO

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of transgenic animals. In the US, animal rights activists vandalized UCLA scientist Edyth London’s home and caused extensive damage. She and her colleagues conducting research on animals have been harrassed and threatened with violence for years. In the UK, animal welfare groups want researchers to find other ways to conduct research even as the number of genetically engineered/modified (GM) animals used in British laboratories continues to increase.

UK GeneWatch director, Helen Wallace, predictably came out against genetically engineered supermice as well. She first warns us against the creation of superhumans, moves on to animal rights, then suggests that we’re wasting money on genetics research “in a world where many diseases are neglected and people cannot get the medicines they need.” Bryan Appleyard’s assessment of supermice is much more pragmatic (and snarky).

In what could be a direct response to Helen Wallace and other animal rights activists, Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield write in After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning:

Every time I hear calls for blanket curbs on genetic technology, I think of the heart patient who died waiting for a transplant as animal rights protestors championed the rights of xenograft pigs, or the mother forced to watch her son suffer because fundamentalists took legal action to prevent her from having what they call a “designer baby” (a technique the relies on embryo selection, not genetic modification, as this pejorative label suggests). Abandoning a particularly “dangerous” technology wholesale can kill, maim and hurt future generations by preventing that technology from doing any good at all. Society has to weigh the opportunities to help and make sure that it does not miss important new opportunities because of fear of new knowledge. We should be prepared to change our views and judgements in the light of new discoveries.

How have your views and judgments changed lately?

HT: Boing Boing, Gene Expression, Thought Experiments

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2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine Goes To Mice Geneticists

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 8, 2007 in DNA Lab Talk, Genetic Engineering

Congratulations to Mario R. Capecchi, Oliver Smithies, and Sir Martin J Evans who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in medicine today! The announcement was made just minutes ago and their pictures aren’t even up on the Nobel Prize site yet.

The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Mario R. Capecchi, Martin J. Evans, and Oliver Smithies for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells.

The three Nobel Laureates pioneered gene targeting in mice which can be used to inactivate single genes to create “knockout” mice. Over ten thousand mouse genes have been knocked out and studied thus far and over five hundred different mouse models of human disorders have been created.

knockout mice

More about the fascinating gene-targeting experiments in the Nobel Prize Press Release.

Photo: Knockout mice from Wellcome Images under Creative Commons

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Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis for Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 1, 2007 in DNA Testing, DNA and Disease, Genetic Engineering

embryosThe UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has approved the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to select embryos free of the gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The couple who applied has a family history of the disease on the man’s side. His mother, grandmother, and two uncles all died from early-onset Alzheimer’s.

In 2002, researchers in Chicago performed the first PGD procedure for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Fifteen embryos were screened for the V717L mutation in the amyloid precursor protein (APP) gene which acts in a dominant fashion; only one copy of the genetic mutation is needed to cause early-onset Alzheimer’s. In this case, the mother carried the V717L mutation inherited from her father. One of her sisters and one of her brothers also had the disease. At the time, the Wellcome Trust Public Health Genetics Unit raised the following concern:

Considerable controversy surrounds this use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis. The issue is whether a woman who knows that she is likely to fall victim to dementia while still in her 30s, and so be unable to care for her child, has the right to choose to become a mother.

Dr. David King, director of Human Genetics Alerts – an independent public interest watchdog group in London that opposes the use of PGD for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease:

We can confidently expect science to find a cure for Alzheimer’s in the next 40 years.

I don’t believe that it is better never to have been born than to live a healthy life for 45 years and die from Alzheimer’s.

If we don’t want to slide down this slippery slope, we must restrict PGD to conditions that are fatal in early life.

As for the couple who has just been granted the use of PGD for early-onset Alzheimer’s, the potential father is the one with the family history. Yet, he does not know if he carries the APP V717L gene mutation. If he does carry the genetic mutation, he has a 50-50 chance of passing the mutation, and subsequently the disease, to his children.

Although I’m not questioning this couple’s very personal choice, I do wonder why they are going through PGD without knowing the potential father’s genetic status. If he tests negative, he can rest assured that his children most likely won’t develop early-onset Alzheimer’s and they would not have to go through PGD. However, if he tested positive, he’d be in the same situation of considering PGD. I understand the psychological implications of genetic testing, but what is the rationale behind this choice?

Would you choose PGD to select embryos free of a genetic mutation even if you didn’t know if you had the genetic mutation yourself and thus had no a priori knowledge of the probability of passing the genetic mutation on to your children?

via PHG Foundation
Photo: Early human embryos from Wellcome Images under Creative Commons

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Parents Feel Guilty Over Giving Children Bad Genes

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 27, 2007 in DNA in General, Genetic Engineering

stephen chopsticks and broccoliABC News: Picky Eating May Be in Kids’ Genes:

Having trouble persuading your child to eat broccoli or spinach? You may have only yourself to blame.

According to a study published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, neophobia – or the fear of new foods – is mostly in the genes.

“Children could actually blame their mothers for this,” said Dr. Jane Wardle, director of the Health Behavior Unit at University College London, one of the study’s authors.

“Parents should not feel like they’re doing something wrong if they keep trying but their child is not overjoyed to be eating Brussels sprouts,” said Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

@#! So are parents supposed to feel guilty for passing on “faulty” genes or give in and blame their genes instead, absolving our conscious selves of all guilt? We need to get our heads clear on this concept because the more we learn about our genetic make-up, the more worries we’ll have to face when it comes to the genes we’ve unintentionally doled out to our offspring. Some families are dealing with this dilemma already.

Last year, when the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to screen embryos for BRCA1 and BRCA2, genes for breast and ovarian cancers, Karin Cohn and her family were featured. Karin carries the BRCA1 gene and both her sister and mother have had breast cancer. Karin’s mother Pat Gilbor:

I feel guilty. Rationally I know I shouldn’t, but emotionally I do

Karin herself also worries about the potential of having given her daughter Sophie the BRCA1 gene and supports the use of PGD:

If I had had the option, I would have done it. And I would continue to do it until I got a clear embryo.

It would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about my child in the future.

In many ways, I think this is a reflection of current parenting culture. We are so keen to control every aspect of our children’s lives and give them every advantage we can that it naturally extends to their health.

Just think about it for a second. It makes no sense to blame ourselves for the genes we’ve given our children because we can’t and did not select the genes that were distributed to them when they were conceived (with the exception of a limited list of genes using PGD).

Michael J. Sandel points out just what’s wrong with this way of thinking in The Case Against Perfection (now a book):

Parents become responsible for choosing, or failing to choose, the right traits for their children.

And yet, even if and when genetic engineering for “perfect” children becomes widely available, we’ll still be unable to control the way our children’s genes interact with the environment in which they grow up.

Being a good parent means knowing what’s important and what can be improved within reason. When it comes to genetic material, I accept that my child isn’t perfect. After all, I may be responsible for giving my son the genes of genius but there’s no guarantee he got just as good from his daddy’s side of the family!

NB: For the record, broccoli is my five-year-old’s favorite vegetable.

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Beware of Genetic Bioviolence

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted July 9, 2007 in DNA Around the World, DNA and the Law, Genetic Engineering

bioviolence barry kellmanIn contrast to James Watson and Freeman Dyson, Barry Kellman is a DNA pessimist and might I say, a scaremonger as well. Over the weekend, he warned us of the potential dark side of genetics in the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s enough to make me think we need to shut down genetics research RIGHT NOW until we can enact enough laws to keep the malcontents and their biological weapons at bay. But, of course, all the fear is just build-up to…a new book!

Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime is slated to come out next month. The book summary makes it sound like a primer and directory for bioterrorists*:

  • What diseases should you use for “hostile purposes”? Smallpox, anthrax, or ebola.
  • Who can help you create disease weapons? Rogue States and groups like Al-Qaeda.
  • Who isn’t doing a good job of developing a strategy to “improve humanity’s security”? Law enforcers, scientists, public health officials, nations, and international organizations like the United Nations. Pretty much everyone!

At least one world leader is taking steps to protect his citizens – Russian President Vladimir Putin. :shock: What a star. Prof. Kellman tells us that President Putin has banned the export of human medical biological materials to ensure that his citizens’ genetic data won’t be used for making ethnic-specific biological weapons that can be aimed at them. Also consider this fair warning for people of Russian descent spread all over the world. In fact, if you’re of any ethnicity at all, be afraid, be very afraid:

It will soon be possible to manipulate viruses or bacteria so that they predominantly affect only Jews or Han Chinese or, yes, Russians. Even if that weapon affected only 10 or 20 percent of a group, the effects could be devastating.

Now he just had to go and mention the Chinese. Excuse me while I go don my biohazard suit.

*OK. I admit to tweaking it for satirical purposes.

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IVF Strategies: Cloned Sperm and Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted July 5, 2007 in DNA Testing, DNA and Disease, DNA in General, Genetic Engineering

spern lightsTraditional wisdom tells us that men can father children at any age while women’s biological clocks implode in their late 40’s or 50’s. But, according to, male infertility occurs in 50% of cases where a couple can’t conceive. A number of causes can lead to male infertility including abnormal sperm; about one in 300 men have extremely low sperm counts. In these cases, scientists hope that cloning human sperm will be an option in the future.

Cloned sperm used to fertilise mouse eggs have resulted in the birth of healthy mice (along with quite a few that died shortly after birth). The cloned sperm were created by:

  1. Injecting normal sperm heads containing DNA into eggs that had that its own DNA removed, letting the eggs divide creating “pseudosperm.”
  2. Fertilizing normal mouse eggs with the pseudosperm creating embryos
  3. Transferring the embryos to female mice

Among the unknowns, sperm DNA apparently stops expressing male-specific genes after three rounds of cell division as a pseudosperm. Does that mean resulting embryos would all be female? Or does it also mean genes responsible for testosterone and other male hormones would be affected as well?

In related news, Dutch researchers have shown that preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) may not help older women become mothers. PGD is used to screen embryos for genetic defects by sampling one cell from a 3-day-old embryo. By only implanting embryos that do not have any observable genetic defects, doctors hoped to increase the pregnancy success rate in older mothers undergoing IVF. However, results from a study of 408 women who were assigned to receive either IVF with or without PGD found that women undergoing PGD actually had a lower rate of successful births – 24% compared to 35% in women who underwent IVF alone. (More on PGD at the UK Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority website.)

Infertility seems to be in the news this week. For personal stories on infertility, start at a little pregnant where Julie has created a list of infertility blogs.

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Eye on DNA Links – June 28, 2007

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted June 28, 2007 in DNA and Disease, Eye on DNA Headlines, Genetic Engineering

*Update: Speaking of transgenic animals, here’s a naturally occurring zorse – zebra father, horse mother.

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(>> Start a discussion!)


Athletes and Their DNA

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted June 4, 2007 in DNA Testing, Genetic Engineering

If I were given a choice between gene therapy for mental or athletic prowess, I would choose mental prowess without a thought. Not being a natural born athlete has biased me towards thinking that brains outrank brawn. But for many people, athletics are just as important as academics if not more so. Many promising young athletes are tempted by the boost anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs give them. Once genetic enhancements are available, we spectators may get to see some pretty spectacular sporting competitions.

Athletes have already been the focus of studies seeking to understand the genetic underpinnings of physical abilities. As many as 500 genes and DNA markers may be associated with athletic performance and health-related fitness. Scientists have bioengineered mice with larger-than-average muscles by knocking out the myostatin gene (these mice have been knicknamed ”Schwarzenegger mice”).

It’s hard to determine what athletes are allowed to do to improve their abilities without being called a “cheat.” If we expect them to rely on their natural born abilities, should they not engage in any vigorous training or take vitamin supplements? Maybe only children who’ve never received any real coaching are true athletes. Michael J. Sandel wrote in The Atlantic (subscription only) that because natural, inborn talents differ, there’s no such thing as fairness in sports. So, drug/gene doping in sports would not necessarily lead to a new disparity between those who have access and those who don’t (think industrialized vs developing countries at the Olympics).

At the Cheltenham Science Festival this week, there will be a session on genetic testing or manipulation to enhance sports led by professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University, Greg Whyte. He believes athletes in many sports have reached the limits of innate human ability. In a Times UK article, Diving Into The Gene Pool, it was suggested that scientists would control the fate of athletes by predicting who would be the winner based on “performance genes.”

track and field

They’ve got to be kidding, right? Even world class sprinters can fall and trip in a race. Anyone remember Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympics? As awesome as someone’s genes and physical abilities may be, environment still intervenes. An unfamiliar arena, bad weather, injury, flu, and all manner of other events out of an athlete’s and his/her coach’s control can and do determine the outcome of a sporting event. Think Tanya Harding.

It’s tempting to think we can genetically engineer superhumans in the manner of Heroes. But as Laura once said to me, “Science fiction is FICTION!!!!!”

Update: John Hawks points to an article in the New York Times on the use of gene therapy drug Repoxygen in sports training. Originally designed for use in treating anemia, Repoxygen could become one of the ways in which athletes use gene therapy to boost their endurance and stamina.

Update 2: Carol Torgan at  Body Shop reported on Genes and Sports Medicine as discussed at the 54th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.

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