Top US experts raise potential of gene editing to make dragons, unicorns

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Chinese dragon
Supporters of China's President Xi Jinping carry a dragon as they wait on the Mall for him to pass during his ceremonial welcome, in London, Britain, October 20, 2015. Xi is on a State visit to Britain. Reuters/Peter Nicholls

People, especially experts, should consider the potential of gene editing tools to alter  nature, with DIY biologists, genetic engineering startups and artists potentially aiming to create new organisms, argue top U.S. bioethicists. The gene editing technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, could deliver a greater impact on the environment than on human editing.

Hank Greely, from Stanford School of Medicine, and Alta Charo, from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, published an essay showing the overlooked and unexpected nonhuman applications of CRISPR/Cas9.

The essay shows gene editing has already been used in several scientific experiments. The artist Eduardo Kac has created a green rabbit using gene editing, most places in the U.S. are selling genetically modified "GloFish" and some startups are endorsing colour-changing flowers on Kickstarter.

"This essay is, in in essence, a plea—let's not ignore the nonhuman part of the biosphere," Greely and Charo said in the essay published in The American Journal of Bioethics. The two bioethicists highlighted the potential of gene editing to help create a real-life "dragon."

Basic physics will certainly work with biological constraints “to prevent the creation of flying dragons or fire-breathing dragons.” However, they noted that some experts could be aiming to use gene editing to create a very large reptile that looks at least like the European or Asian dragon.

"Why should we not expect dwarf elephants, giant guinea pigs, or genetically tamed tigers?" they asked. "Or—dare we wonder—the billionaire who decides to give his 12-year-old daughter a real unicorn for her birthday?"

As some of the world's top geneticists are pushing for a total ban of any genetic editing tool due to its threats to the human race, Greely and Charo said they aren’t against the technique. However, they suggest a regulatory clarity for the responsibility of government agencies for deciding when to necessarily use CRISPR/Cas9.

The British biotech company Oxitec is aiming to use CRISPR/Cas9 to genetically modify mosquitoes to eliminate dengue. However, the Food and Drug Administration is currently deciding whether or not to allow the company to follow "animal drug" regulations that would take into account if gene editing is safe for the health of the mosquito.

But both the US Department of Agriculture's animal and plant health regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide regulations should apply to the trial.

"Overall, we have three agencies and multiple statutes coming into play to consider the downstream effects on the environment of engineering an entire population of mosquitoes," Greely and Charo stated. "This might be reassuring, but it also may mean there will be a morass each time a critter seems to fall through the cracks."

Greely and Charo said that the overlooked nonhuman applications of gene editing should spark “not only the imagination, but also critical policy and ethical analysis.”

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