Walking with a Loaded Gun: Pandemics, Genetic Engineering, and Chimp Meat

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Biology 103
2005 First Paper
On Serendip

Walking with a Loaded Gun: Pandemics, Genetic Engineering, and Chimp Meat

Brom Snyder

The increasingly interconnected global community is ripe for a pandemic. Scientists across the globe engage in experiments which slightly modify the structure of viruses, adding a gene here or there with unintended consequences; an increasing number of bacteria prove to be resistant to antibiotics; the ever expanding need for resources drives humans farther into previously uninhabited environments exposing man to a whole new army of viruses and bacteria; all of these factors combine with an unprecedented mixing of people as worldwide travel becomes more frequent, creating an environment where a pandemic is a serious threat.

Some members of the scientific community believe the greatest threat of a "super virus" comes from research involving genetic engineering. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, a member of the Institute of Science and Society, states that there is great "danger in the unintentional creation of deadly pathogens in course of apparently genetic engineering experiments." (1) Her fears seem to be based on events like the accidental creation of a lethal mousepox virus in an Australian lab. Australian scientists were using the mousepox virus as a vehicle to insert a gene which would in turn produce a chemical making the mice infertile. The results were disastrous; the modified mousepox virus killed all the mice that had not been vaccinated for mouse pox, and fifty percent of the mice who had received the vaccination. The chemical produced by the injected gene suppressed the mice's immune system allowing it to be overrun by the virus. (2) While this is only one case and in this case no humans were harmed it is a model case of what can go wrong when perfectly innocent genetic engineering of viruses is conducted. If a person or group of people is looking to genetically modify an already existing virus in an attempt to make it more lethal there is a strong chance of success.

Not only do innocently and maliciously genetically engineered viruses pose a pandemic threat but bacteria which have evolved in response to the antibiotics used against them for the past sixty years do too. Bacteria like Streptococcus pneumoniae (the bacteria that commonly causes what is called strep throat) "easily acquire, integrate, and express stretches of DNA" causing the bacteria to mutate. (3) One of the most effective ways bacteria evolve is based on their ability to change the nature of the membrane that surrounds them. Bacteria decrease the size of the pores through the membrane making it harder for the antibiotics to get into the bacteria itself thus preventing its destruction. The problem confronting scientists is they do not know what new type of molecular mechanism will develop in the bacteria, if the mutation changes the structure or composition of the bacterium then a new antibiotic is necessary.(3) This factor makes it difficult to take preventative action. Scientists and researchers are in constant competition with the bacteria, and the odds are in favor of the bacteria. Organizations like the Center for Disease and Control are pushing for more discrete use of antibiotics but this is not a permanent solution, only one that might slow down the rate of mutation in bacteria. (4)

The need for food, resources, or land, particularly in areas of Africa, also help create an environment where a pandemic is more likely. Outbreaks of Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses man has encountered, with a fatality rate ranging from 50% to 90%, seem to be linked to men being out in the jungle for mining expeditions or hunting for animals like chimpanzees. (5)(6) As the population grows and more resources are needed environments like the jungle will be penetrated by man, and while this may prove a boon to mankind, unexplored areas offer unexpected benefits, a new plant that will be a key component of a new cancer drug, encounters with viruses like Ebola are likely to be more frequent. This problem is compounded by the fact that modern air travel makes it possible for someone to fly from Zaire, with a stopover say in Paris, and then to New York in a day. If a person were to be exposed to Ebola and then immediately leave the area it would be days and thousands of people later that he would show symptoms.

The evidence I present in this paper illustrates that in many ways the present situation regarding the potential for a pandemic is of man's own making. Genetic engineering, the over prescription of antibiotics, and the expansion of man into inhospitable environments all directly contribute to the rising threat of pandemic. The threat of a pandemic illustrates the true nature of scientific investigation. With the advances in scientific research that save millions of lives and make the quality of life better for countless others, comes the threat of new and unforeseen dangers. Science offers no final solution, as science advances it creates a new set of problems. That being said, it is impossible to stop the advance of scientific thinking because humans have the mental capacity to solve problems and have the ability to think abstractly about a "better life." These two factors fuel science but it should be remembered that with this "better life" comes with a whole host of new problems.

Works cited:
1)Institute of Science and Society News, Ho, Mae-Wen"Genetic Engineering Super Viruses" July 2001

2)New Scientist Magazine, Nowak, Rachel "Killer Virus" January 10, 2001

3)Center for Disease and Control, Courvalin P. "Antimicrobial drug resistance: 'Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future'" October 2005

4)Center for Disease and Control "Snort. Sniffle. Sneeze. No Antibiotics Please!" January 28 2005

5)National Geographic News Lovgren, Stefan "Where does Ebola Hide?" February 19 2003
6)Center for Disease and Control "Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Table Showing Known Cases and Outbreaks, in Chronological Order" November 26 2003

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