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how can genetic engineering help us to adapt in the ocean

Submitted by: Daniel Santos-Rojas [STUDENT]


Expert response from Christopher Barbey

PhD Student, Plant Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology

Monday, 25/06/2018 16:18

Hi and thanks for the question! I think you may have been inspired by recent reports on the discovery of the human gene PDE10A. This gene helps the Bajau people (a marine hunter-gatherer people living in southeast Asia) dive deeper and for greater duration. This genetic adaption increases the size of their spleen, which helps the Bajau perform in low-oxygen environments.

At the same time, new techniques for editing DNA (of all organisms) has many people excited about curing human genetic diseases and possibly other new “upgrades.”

While it may be fun to think about diving as well as the Bajau, it’s unlikely gene editing will specifically help with that any time soon. Ethical considerations aside, gene editing has a large technical hurdle in terms of “delivery.” A human body is made of tens of trillions of cells, and each cell contains the complete genome (some notable exceptions). Currently there’s no method on the horizon for editing all the cells of a large multicellular organism such as ourselves. So even though we know a lot of negative genetics causing human disease, unfortunately we can’t easily correct them in a living person. The technical hurdles preventing the curing of disease are the same hurdles preventing your transformation into Aquaman.

One way to get around this is to edit an embryo, which has only very few cells (around 10). These later give rise to the other 37,000,000,000 cells in a human body. The ethics around gene editing in humans is very complicated, and it’s a conversation we actually need to have now, as a human society. Really.

However, the biggest problems with the ocean aren’t about how long we can hold our breath in it. As well, gene editing isn’t all about human DNA. The biggest problems to solve with the ocean are addressing the damage our civilization is doing to it, and genetic engineering can help at least a little. A more sustainable farmed Pacific Chinook salmon has been made which grows year-round, rather than just seasonally. Advances like these can help decrease the economic pressure to overfish the ocean. Similarly, scientists have engineered a yeast which can produce a type of healthy omega-3 fatty acid, which previously could only be attained from the ocean. Researchers are also studying ways to help symbiotic coral algae be more tolerant to the stresses of a warming ocean, which may help slow the destruction of our coral reefs.

This was a long answer, but I want you to take away a few things. First, genetic engineering of plants and animals has been around for a while, and so far it’s been a positive thing for people and the environment. Human gene editing is indeed around the corner, and it’s a real topic that needs discussing. Who should have access to it? What kinds of modifications should be allowed? How will our society change because of it? We all need to treat these issues with seriousness. These are real questions that will need answers in OUR lifetimes.